"All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near."
HONOLULU -- Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton still loves devouring the teachings of Chinese philosopher and military strategist Sun Tzu. The Art of War is a time-tested blueprint for battle, and deals heavily in the mental aspect of conflicts.
His attacking defense mirrors that subtle viciousness; a mix of everything Sutton has learned over more than four decades in coaching, from Bo Schembechler's staff at Michigan to West Point; from Rex Ryan confidant to one of the most feared defensive coordinators in football.
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But when it comes to stopping Peyton Manning and the Broncos, there are certain rules of war that apply more than others. There is the will to remain steadfast against a slew of run plays and the art of puzzling Manning after the snap -- never before.
"One of the things that I think Gary Kubiak has done well is establishing this run tempo. And the thing about the run is, it's not just gaining yard after yard after yard, but the beauty of what Gary does is that he stays with it. It's not going away," Sutton told Around The NFL after Pro Bowl practice this week. "And as a coach we're like, we gotta play this thing the whole game. He's not giving it up."
On cue, Sutton switches to Manning. He taps his index finger against his head and insists that no matter what is ailing the legendary quarterback "this -- the brain -- is still here." Manning is 5-1 against the Chiefs since Sutton became the team's defensive coordinator back in 2013. This was by far Sutton's best year against Manning, holding the QB to a completion percentage under 50. In two games against Kansas City, Manning threw for just 291 yards, three touchdowns and five interceptions.
Sutton said that Manning can so easily decipher a defense before the snap that it's not worth trying to hurl exotic looks -- though he still tries. The key to stopping Manning is to force him to figure out the defense after the snap, which adds to the amount of time the non-mobile Manning takes to throw.
"I think people don't understand what a great job he does of getting his team in the right play, or the right run. You know, it's really what coach Belichick said -- you never want to underestimate Peyton Manning. This guy can finish a game off as good as anybody in the history of the NFL. We know that personally, he did that to us in our second matchup this year. That's what he does, he's very smart, he knows what to do and you're not going to fool him a lot.
"You have to try, though. If it's clear to him before the snap, forget about it. What we always talk about is, at least make him figure it out while heâs dropping back. Don't let him know before the ball is in his hands. Make him catch the ball in the gun and then figure it out as opposed to, 'Oh, I got it.' He's a smart guy, he's going to take that clock way down. You just have to know that you're dealing with a very special player."
Sutton said he admired the progress Manning made in Kubiak's system this year. For decades, it was evident that Manning was consistently running the Manning system and everyone else just needed to get on board. It even looked like the team was pulling back on Kubiak's teachings earlier this year before the coach and quarterback found a compromise in the pistol.
"It's much more Gary right now," Sutton said of the Broncos over the last few weeks. "He's done it, and you know -- as a coach you have to appreciate Peyton Manning. He's one of the greatest players ever and, the way he's handled this season, that's how you define a true pro. He's fanatical about it, and you really appreciate it."
While most of the conversation about stopping the Broncos centered on Peyton Manning and finding a way to fend off Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, the overwhelming consensus from Pro Bowlers was that Carolina was a far more balanced team.
"They're just solid. They have a great defensive line," Eli Manning told Around The NFL. "Their linebackers are good against the run, their defensive backs make plays that cause a lot of havoc. They have a good scheme and play at a high level."
"They have that mobile quarterback," Chris Ivory said. "Peyton Manning is a great quarterback as well, but Cam is able to move around with his legs and make yardage. When all the other guys are covered and their receivers are shut out, he's able to put up big yardage. I just think on both sides of the ball they have a great team."
So how does one stop the Panthers?
Most pointed to Seattle's second half in the divisional round. Down 31-0 after the first 30 minutes, the Seahawks scored 24 in a row, nearly closing the gap. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell did a nice job of spreading the field, sometimes using a type of bunch formation on either side of the line. On defense, almost every player across the front seven was in a spy.
With Seattle, though, it also took a tremendous amount of emotional equity. A normal team with a perfect game plan cannot come back from a deficit of more than 30 points against the best team in football.
Sutton marveled at their toughness while watching the game on TV. Does Denver have that kind of fortitude?
As Sun Tzu would say: Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.