EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- This was Peyton Manning in discomfort, no glimmer of a smile, little hint of happiness. Such is the toll these Manning Bowls take on him and his family, that the awkwardness of defeating his brother's team could dull even a victory that had shown just how much promise the Denver Broncos have this season.
"It's a strange feeling," Manning said, grimacing after the Broncos beat Eli's New York Giants, 41-23. "It's not like beating another team. It's not quite as enjoyable as it would be if you were beating somebody else."
Manning has never offered an end date to his career -- he certainly wouldn't now, when this game affirmed that the Broncos have all the earmarks of a Super Bowl contender -- but he volunteered Sunday night that he probably will not be around to play Eli again in a regular-season matchup. After all, that would be four years from now, when Peyton will be 41. He and the rest of the Mannings -- the parents dressed in neutral colors, though father Archie stood outside Eli's locker -- seem relieved that this terrifically public chapter of their family dynamic will end. The Manning Bowls, then, will be consigned to history, perhaps better appreciated in hindsight not for the quality of the football produced -- the three games certainly never rose to the heights hoped for whenever the home movies of the brothers in short pants acted as lead-in fodder -- but for the extraordinary confluence of the brothers' careers.
That will be viewed with a golden glow, whenever Peyton and Eli retire with their Super Bowl rings and their records. This game, though, revealed the stark disparity in the brothers' current fortunes in a much harsher light.
Eli threw four interceptions, bringing his season total to a league-leading seven. The Giants are 0-2.
Peyton threw two touchdown passes, bringing his season total to a league-leading nine. The Broncos are 2-0.
The correlation is not that straight, of course. Giants coach Tom Coughlin lamented the almost complete absence of a running game. Big Blue is so replete with problems that the first four questions from reporters to Eli had nothing to do with Peyton, the brothers rendered a footnote by a team already in crisis. That is why, when there is a little more time between Peyton and the brief handshake he shared with Eli while surrounded by dozens of cameras, the older brother should feel better about this victory than his postgame demeanor indicated.
For all the attention heaped on the Mannings, the thing that resonated Sunday night was just how little the Broncos leaned on Peyton. Knowshon Moreno ran for 93 yards on just 13 carries and scored twice, on nearly identical sprints down the right side. The defense, absent starters Von Miller and Champ Bailey, held the Giants to 23 yards rushing and a staggering 1-for-11 on third downs, produced those four interceptions and kept the score close after a second consecutive slow offensive start. Denver even got an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown.
The Broncos are dropping passes (three by Wes Welker alone in the first half) and missing opportunities, particularly on a flawless opening drive that ended in a goal-line fumble. Still, they're showing the kind of balance that probably will be needed later in the season, all while rolling up 90 points in two games. Manning pointed to one halftime adjustment -- the Broncos started using more sets with two tight ends, as opposed to three wide receivers -- as critical to springing the running game and ratcheting up the second-half production.
"You can't give Peyton or a quality quarterback the opportunity to run and pass," Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck said. "You've got to shut them down on at least one. The second half, he got that running game going, and as a defense, you start playing on your heels. And when you're not playing aggressive against a team with that much talent, you're shooting yourself in the foot."
Manning remains the linchpin of the Broncos, and he has been nearly perfect, not giving up a single interception. But even in a portion of the season during which he was expected to shoulder a disproportionate amount of the burden -- with Miller suspended and Bailey injured -- the Broncos did not need anything close to another historic performance to easily dispatch an opponent.
There is a feeling of relentlessness in watching the Broncos, a sense that even if they sputter early in a game, Manning will inevitably find the right plays, and they will overwhelm everything in their way. Perhaps most significantly, they were able to run their fast-paced offense on the road against crowd noise; the Broncos ran 40 plays in the first half.
"When everybody is clicking, it's great," receiver Demaryius Thomas said. "I feel like it's hard to stop us."
It has been, for the first two games of the season, at least. A quick glance around the locker room revealed how many individuals have contributed to the Broncos' victories. Moreno fielded questions about his leadership of the running backs. Receiver Eric Decker, who all but disappeared in the season opener against the Baltimore Ravens, was targeted 13 times and caught nine passes for 87 yards.
It should have been enough to wipe the pained expression from Peyton Manning's face. It was not. His head was bent down as he put his luggage through a security scanner and walked to the team bus.
Manning will have other emotional moments this season. In a few weeks, he will return to Indianapolis for the first time since his forced exile from the Colts. He will play his eternal rivals, the New England Patriots, soon after that. Still, Broncos coach John Fox, who used to be a Giants assistant and said it was tough for him to return to face friends, guessed that for Manning, playing his little brother was "triple tough."