Analysis  

 

Cold reality: Peyton Manning, Broncos need to weather storm

Many times, over many years, Peyton Manning has forced coaches to make gamble-the-reputation choices to combat him. Go for it on fourth-and-2 from deep in your own territory rather than trust your defense to stop him. Try an onside kick to open the second half of the Super Bowl in a desperate attempt to steal a possession from him. Bill Belichick and Sean Payton, two of the greatest tacticians in football, have been there and done that, one losing, one winning, both reaching deep into their bags of tricks and stockpiles of nerves hoping to foil a player who has made a career of dissecting opponents to devastating effect.

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Belichick and Payton had something else in common then, too. They made those decisions in placid conditions, one indoors, the other on a clear, balmy South Florida night.

The difference between those risks and the one Belichick took Sunday night, to start overtime of the New England Patriots' 34-31 comeback victory over the Denver Broncos, is that, even in hindsight, those earlier decisions still prompt wonder at the gutsiness of the decision. On Sunday night, four years after he tried anything to play keep-a-away with Manning, Belichick willingly gave him the ball, and that might say plenty about how Denver's greatest potential playoff foe views the Broncos and the way the rest of us might have to view their vulnerabilities now. Almost immediately, it seemed the right roll of the dice, even if it had failed.

The 14th installment of the Brady-Manning rivalry was only about them when you looked below the surface. The outcome turned on a series of mistakes -- three by the Patriots in the first half, two by the Broncos in the second, including Wes Welker's boffo decision not to field the punt that ultimately cost Denver. But neither of these teams particularly cares about November outcomes, except for how it might affect playoff seeding and the toll it takes in the injury report. Both the Patriots and Broncos will be in the playoffs, and given how the rest of the AFC is performing and the way New England's offense seems to be finding its form, it seems entirely plausible that they will meet again deep in January because they remain, as the NFL enters the final month of its season, the best teams in the AFC.

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So what Belichick and the Patriots revealed about the Broncos is probably instructive because the cold -- bitterly cold -- reality is this: The Broncos are unlikely to play in temperate conditions when the games really matter. They will be outdoors, on their home field, maybe at Arrowhead Stadium, perhaps again in Foxborough and even if they make it to the Super Bowl in New York.

Maybe the wind will not be gusting at 20 mph, but Manning likely will have gloves on both hands in the playoffs and his right arm swaddled in a heavy parka, as it was for that fateful overtime coin flip Sunday night. And if Manning is never a liability, even in winter weather, then he certainly is not considered the same kind of threat by his opponents as he is in almost every other circumstance. Belichick was willing to take his chances by handing the ball to Manning because he simply did not believe Manning could drive into the wind all the way to the end zone.

Manning threw several perfect passes -- probably the best ones of his night -- into the wind on the game-tying drive in the fourth quarter, and they should underscore the folly of underestimating him. At any given moment, Manning remains -- well -- Manning, capable of whistling a ball right past the coverage into his receivers' hands. And even when his passes wobble, they often are good enough to get there. Manning wasn't just being cheeky when he said, after the Broncos' Week 7 loss to the Colts, that he has thrown lots of wobbly passes, and lots of wobbly touchdown passes, too. He was right.

But Manning's consistency in the elements is what the Patriots -- and Manning himself -- were testing Sunday night. The passes sometimes hung in the air, and the Broncos opted for much of the night to stay with the hotter hand, running back Knowshon Moreno. Manning threw for just 150 yards even against an injury-battered defense. Think such a factor is being overblown? Consider that Brady drove the Patriots into the wind for three third-quarter touchdowns, two on passes. There almost certainly will come a moment in December and January when the Broncos must have another one of the drives like the one Manning strung together to tie the game. Sunday showed he could do it. What is still undetermined is if he can do it over and over again.

"It's always a possibility these last months of the season and then you're potentially in the postseason, so I think the more you can be in it, the better off you can be," Manning said of the weather after Sunday's game.

Brady has been in it more often, so perhaps that is why he is better off right now. Since 2003, he is 23-5 in games played when it is freezing, while Manning is 1-6. The shock of that statistic is not Manning's record but how many more times Brady has been forced to contend with the harsh elements. Maybe Manning will never be able to make up for that gap in experience. Maybe it has something to do with the aftermath of Manning's neck surgeries. Maybe his ankles are still tender and that is chipping at his power. And maybe the Broncos' defense needs to contest Brady's passes the way Manning's were being contested.

The Broncos' second loss of the season was not on Manning, although the deductive narrative of the quarterback rivalry will reduce it to a simple win-loss equation. Had Welker fielded the punt -- he took the blame for the decision -- Manning would at least have had another chance and the Patriots would not have had a laughably short field.

What this game told us is that both of these teams are vulnerable. Belichick was almost giddy after it was over, but he can't be thrilled about how his defense was shredded for 280 rushing yards and how both lines were overpowered in the first half. Had the wind not been so fierce, would a battered secondary have been able to hold up against Manning? The Broncos' receivers were overwhelmed physically again -- as they were by the Colts earlier this season -- which has long been the prescription for disrupting Manning no matter where the game is played. And the Broncos have significant health issues, too, not the least of which was Moreno, who rushed for 224 yards, on crutches as the night ended.

Manning admitted that rebounding from a loss like this will be a test for the Broncos, and it is a test they must pass quickly. They go to Kansas City next Sunday for a showdown that will go a long way to determining the AFC West champion and perhaps the AFC's top overall playoff seed. That is a lot to manage. But the Broncos will get at least one small reprieve: The forecast calls for temperatures approaching the 50s and low winds.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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