Brady-Manning XVII: Manning’s Game to Lose

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Hayden Peirce, Reporter

For the last seven weeks of the NFL regular season, the biggest question mark surrounding the Broncos was Peyton Manning’s health and availability. After Manning was benched in favor of Brock Osweiler during a week ten game against Kansas City for throwing four interceptions, it was revealed that Manning had a partially torn Plantar Fascia. Manning’s father, Archie Manning, said that his son Peyton had been dealing with the injury since early August. In other words, Manning had been dealing with this foot injury for the entire regular season up until the game in which he was benched. By no means am I trying to make Manning’s injury into an excuse for his admittedly horrendous play the first nine games that he started, I am simply saying that it was a factor. Now, after eight weeks of rest, Manning is coming off of his best performance of the season. Yes, I said best of the season.

Manning most definitely did not light up the stats chart, but he did come in and play the cleanest game I have seen from him, and his team for that matter, in a long time. Last Sunday’s game against the Steelers was the first game all season that Manning did not throw a pick as a starter. I truly believe that in the playoffs, a team’s turnover differential is what decides games. It was clear from kickoff that the key shift in momentum in that game was going to be from a turnover. When Demarcus Ware recovered a Steelers fumble, the offense knew that they had to take advantage of the opportunity that the defense gave them. What followed was the best drive  of the game by either team, a drive that ate 6:52 off the clock and culminated in a touchdown to give Denver the lead. The Broncos won because they played excellent on defense and avoided costly mistakes and turnovers on offense.

Besides orchestrating the most mistake-free performance by the Broncos of their season, Manning also looked as though he had more zip on his throws, and was generally much more accurate than he has been during the games he has played in this season. His statistics say otherwise; 21 of 37 for 222 yards is a mediocre performance. Zero TDs doesn’t have a nice ring to it either. But in football, numbers can lie.

Manning was not helped by his receivers at all. There were at least six drops by various players in the first half. The first six points put up by the Broncos came on two Brandon McManus field goals, field goals which would have been touchdowns if not for – you guessed it – dropped passes. A serious problem all night, drops caused drive after drive to stall, and ended up preventing the Broncos from taking advantage of stellar field position while forcing them to settle for field goals. I can say with confidence that Peyton Manning would have had at least 300 yards of passing if his receivers would have held onto the ball better, especially considering that in almost every instance of a drop the receiver had room to run. As for the goose egg in the passing TD category, that can be mostly attributed to conservative play calling in the red zone. Runs up the middle or short, predictable screens often prohibited the offense from getting a first down. Although, considering the poor performances by receivers, it is not surprising that Gary Kubiak decided to shy away from longer downfield throws and take what yardage he could get off of those shorter plays. Take away the mistakes and drops by the rest of the team and you are left with an impressive performance from Manning as an individual.

The Broncos won against the Steelers in their typical fashion of this season, by grinding out whatever points they could and coming from behind to win a tight game. Against the Patriots, they are simply going to have to play better. This is the most complete Broncos team we have seen in a long time, and Manning does not have to be the hero any more. All he has to do is call good audibles, complete the underneath passes and occasionally go deep to keep defenses honest. The Broncos can rely on their power running game and superb defense the rest of the way. The Kansas City Chiefs were able to hold New England to 27 points when they met in the Divisional Round. I firmly believe that the Broncos have a better defense than Kansas City. Denver held Pittsburgh’s offense, which has been better than New England’s all season, to 16 points. Granted, Pittsburgh was without Antonio Brown, but the other receivers were able to step up and fill his role surprisingly well. Well enough that I do not think there would have been a significant difference in the production of the Steelers’ offense if they did have Antonio Brown. Yes Denver’s defense gave up more big plays than they should have and yes, they did allow Big Ben to pass for 300 yards again, but in the end they held the most high power offense in the league to a mere 16 points. That is what counts.

To beat the Patriots and give Manning one more shot at winning a Super Bowl, this Denver defense which has impressed all season is going to have to play out of their minds. I do not mean to discredit New England at all, their offense is extremely dangerous especially when fully healthy. But if there is one flaw in the plan for them, it is the weakness of their offensive line. The Broncos pass rush is going to have to put pressure on Tom Brady, who is known for getting the ball out very quick even with good pass protection. To make him hold the ball, the secondary is going to have to press man coverage and prevent Brady from exploiting broken zone coverage. This Denver D is built for more physical man coverage, and it seems that there are more big plays given up when they shift to the zone defense. Wade Phillips needs to stick to the same strategy that he has been using all season, which is to stay in man coverage with zone sprinkled in occasionally and dial up the blitz. The Broncos should be able to hold New England to a score than the Denver offense can surpass with this formula that has worked for them all year.

On the offensive side of the ball, Denver has the talent and ability to keep pace with the Patriots. New England has an advantage at the quarterback position (there’s no arguing that at this stage of their respective careers, Brady is the better quarterback), but to win the Broncos should not have to rely on their aging quarterback. They need to rely on a high powered running game and great receiving talent. First of all, Peyton Manning is going to throw the ball at some point, and when he does his receivers must hold on to it. It doesn’t matter how bad the throw is, if it hits them in the chest or the hands then they have to catch the ball. There is no excuse. Those dropped passes can and do kill drives whether they happen on third down or not. If the receivers had held on to the ball better then the offense would have had more opportunities to extend drives and score touchdowns rather than field goals. To beat the Patriots, you are going to need seven points per red zone trip, not three.

The running game needs to be the focal point of the offense, as it has been all season under Gary Kubiak. Denver will need 150+ yards rushing to supplement their pass attack against the Pats. This is very doable. New England’s defense should not be underestimated though, as it has played better as of late. Then again, so has Pittsburgh’s defense, who had a better Divisional game as a defensive unit than the Pat’s defense did in my opinion. If Denver can move the chains against New England’s defense like they did against the Steelers’ defense, they should be able to find success. The key to the running game is going to have to be C.J. Anderson, who is more explosive than his counterpart Ronnie Hillman. Until now, the Broncos have been using him as more of a power back in third down situations and during the fourth quarter. This needs to change. While Ronnie Hillman has more speed than C.J. Anderson, he cannot punch through the holes that are given to him. Ronnie Hillman is probably the better speed back, but speed means nothing if you can’t break free. My point is that the Broncos will have to use C.J. Anderson much more frequently if they want to get the run game going and beat the Patriots.

Do all this, and the Broncos have a legitimate shot at defeating New England and advancing to the Super Bowl. Denver has the talent and the depth to win this game, and I have to believe they will. This team has overcome too much adversity throughout the season to fall short. We as fans have to realize that, no matter which way you look at it, this is going to be Peyton Manning’s last shot at a Super Bowl. It is the unfortunate truth that has been in the back of everyone’s minds the entire season. Luckily, Manning has a perfect road out. Beating Tom Brady and his Patriots and advancing to win Super Bowl 50 would be the perfect way to cement this future first-ballot hall of famer’s legacy. It is a situation that is very possible now, which is frankly astounding considering the fact that not one month ago we were speculating about whether anyone would ever see Manning take another snap. Now, his storied career has a chance to end the way it should: with a bang.