Two weeks ago I was minding my own business, watching film of the previous weekend's NFL Divisional playoff matchups, specifically the Broncos' victory over the Steelers because I was working on a piece about longtime Steelers rush linebacker James Harrison. I watched all four games from the Divisional round live so I already had a pretty good feel for how they had gone, or at least I thought I did, but as I was watching the coaches tape, detailing Harrison's exploits, what actually caught my eye was the play of Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.
Before I turned on that tape, I was sure that Manning had been meh as hell in that game. I was so certain of it that I was all set to pick the Patriots over the Broncos in the AFC Championship. I just didn't have faith that Denver could win with Manning playing as mediocre as he had been this season, no matter how great their defense was playing.
But the more I kept watching, the more impressed I found myself with how he threw the ball against the Steelers, so I resolved to go back and rewatch the tape all over again so I could focus on Peyton and how he actually played against Pittsburgh.
Since Manning played like dog shit the first nine weeks of the season, I kinda felt like some skepticism of his ability to throw the football was warranted just on principle. Manning is no doubt one of the all-time greats to ever play the quarterback position, a sure-fire first ballot Hall of Famer and a former college teammate of mine to boot, but the guy threw at least one interception in every single one of those first nine games and multiple interceptions in five of them. There's just no way to shine that turd.
That was before Manning sustained a foot injury that benched him for much of the second half of the season. There were also rumors after the fact that he had other ailments early in the season that also negatively affected his ability to throw the football, but it looked more like excuse making at the time, designed to give backup quarterback Brock Osweiler an opportunity to take over the reins.
I'm not so sure any longer.
Osweiler just couldn't snatch the job away from Manning in his time as a starter, and Peyton was thrown back in the lineup in the middle of the last regular season game. He didn't look all that awesome in that game, but he did look better than he had previously this season. That was such a low bar that I didn't really think much of it heading into the playoffs. I just figured the mediocre version of Manning was here to stay and the Broncos defense would simply have to put the team on its back to have any chance of advancing past the Divisional round after a first-round bye. The Steelers game film told a different story.
What jumped out to me when I was trying to grade Harrison's play was how accurate the overwhelming majority of Manning's passes were that day.
Stop laughing, I'm serious.
Some of them were just flat out dimes, tbh.
I'm talking about passes like the one he threw to Cody Latimer with 14 seconds to go in the first quarter where Manning led him away from the defender with good ball placement so he could get some extra yards after the catch.
I'm also talking about passes like the deep dig to Emmanuel Sanders a little over halfway through the second quarter with Steelers cornerback William Gay all over him in coverage. He put that ball where only Sanders could get to it, right on the money.
Or how about the quick slant to Demaryius Thomas on third-and-3 with a little over a minute left in the second quarter? Manning stepped into that pass and really put some mustard on it to fit it right between Gay and Pittsburgh outside linebacker Jarvis Jones.
We can definitely talk about the skinny post to Yeoman Johnson ... whoops I mean Bennie Fowler with 8:37 left in the game and the Broncos down 13-12. Manning hit Fowler in stride so that he could also get his RAC on and the result was a 31-yard gain that helped to put the Broncos in position to score what was ultimately the game-winning touchdown that came with the Broncos facing a third-and-12 from their own 33-yard line.
Manning's statistics for that game didn't necessarily look all that impressive on paper, but the truth is I only consider one of his passes from that day to be off target. One. Uno. Yeah, I said it.
Catchable balls, incomplete passes
To be clear when I say off target I mean not catchable. I do not mean perfect. By definition any ball that gets caught is inherently catchable, so focus in on the incompletions -- there were 16 -- and why they all happened. Well, 10 of those incompletions were either drops, pass breakups by Steelers defenders, or a combination of the two, but those 10 passes were all on target. And before somebody brings up the would-be interception by Gay on the dig route to Sanders, that was a bad decision, but the pass was exactly where you want it for that route if Gay wasn't sitting there. Two other incompletions were throwaways and another was a ball where Manning was hit as he released it.
There were also two other occasions where the coverage affected the receivers' routes just enough that they couldn't come out of their break where they were supposed to, and those passes still went where the receivers were supposed to be. One happened when Jordan Norwood tried to fake an outside stem on his route then come back inside on a slant on third-and-2 with 3:48 left in the first quarter. Steelers corner Brandon Boykin ended up rolling down to him as the ball was snapped, preventing Norwood from getting inside where the ball was eventually thrown.
The other play was what looked to be a deep out route by Thomas. Gay initiated contact with him right at the top of the route when Thomas was about to break outside -- it looked a lot like a PI to me, but there was no flag and barely any acknowledgement by the game announcers -- but the pass was where it was supposed to be had Thomas been allowed to make his normal cut on that route. That was a third-and-10 play with 8:12 left in the third quarter.
It's kind of amazing how many good passes Manning threw in that game that were completely wasted, as well as drives that stalled because of it. To give you even more perspective, seven of the drops in that game were on passes that would have likely resulted in first downs on four drives that ended in either a punt or a field goal instead. That includes a drop by Broncos running back C.J. Anderson on a play where the middle was totally cleared out and he had a chance to go a looooong way.
There was also the drop by Sanders on fourth-and-3 in the second quarter where he tried to take off as soon as the ball was in his hands. He ended up running right into Steelers safety Mike Mitchell who jarred the ball loose. If Sanders just catches the ball and goes down, there would've been a first down somewhere around the Steelers' 30-yard line.
Now, if the class had their calculators out while reading, you know that leaves us with one incompletion unaccounted for, and that was the one pass that was actually off target. It was a skinny post Thomas ran that Manning threw too long for him on the first play of the second quarter. In fairness, Manning was under center for that one and he still doesn't look all that comfortable when he is asked to throw the ball from any place other than out of shotgun. But Kubiak is going to keep Kubiaking, so you just have to expect some of the passes he throws when he isn't in shotgun will be off a little bit. It is what it is.
Still, a performance like that where he only threw one uncatchable ball that wasn't a throwaway or when he was getting hit is pretty damned amazing, especially after how he started the season this year. I know you might be asking yourself why more people didn't notice that he had actually played his best game of the season, by far, in the Divisional round against the Steelers? I have a theory on that, but we'll come back to it at the end of this piece.
A bad throw that wasn't
Like I said before, Manning's film against the Steelers is what swayed me to pick the Broncos over the Patriots. I'll admit to being nervous over the choice before the game started because not a lot of people were agreeing with me on that one. But, like I figured, Manning came out dealing early. Once again a lot of folks were too busy making jokes to notice, but those jokes started slowing down quite a bit after Manning's second touchdown pass to Owen Daniels in the first half helped give the Broncos 17-9 lead at the half. Denver held on to win, 20-18, as it went all the way down to the wire, but I still don't think a lot of folks came away thinking Manning had played well, even after he helped lead his team to yet another Super Bowl. .
Oh, but he did.
It wasn't as sharp of a performance as he had against the Steelers, but I could only find five throws that I considered to be uncatchable against the Patriots that weren't throwaways. This time he had 15 incompletions all game and in addition to the bad throws, five of the other incompletions were either drops, pass breakups by Patriots defenders or a little bit of both.
Then there were two throwaways plus two other plays where there were again route issues with the receivers. One of those was the back shoulder fade to Fowler up the seam on third-and-6 with 5:24 to go in the first quarter, Patriots rookie corner Justin Coleman out of Tennessee (VFL) basically stiff-armed Fowler right in the middle of his chest before the ball got there to keep him from being able to adjust to it in the air. The other should have been a touchdown to Sanders on a fade route with 47 seconds left to go in the first half, but for some reason, Sanders tried to do a stop and go in the middle of the route and just couldn't catch up to the ball after he started running again.
And that leaves one more incompletion doesn't it?
This was the incompletion that actually got me to thinking about why very few people were giving Manning credit for playing well. At the very least he wasn't turning the ball over like he did at the beginning of the season. If his receivers made more plays for him, both of these games may have been blow outs.
The incompletion I'm talking about is the ball Manning threw to Thomas on third-and-9 at the beginning of the second quarter when Manning tried to fit it in the hole between the corner and the safety up the sideline.
Now, you might be remembering that play as a bad pass, mostly because that's pretty much what the announcers called it. A good try, but a little too high. But just how high was it really? No way to know if you didn't go back and rewind the play on your own since the broadcast didn't bother to show a close-up replay of where the ball went.
Look at this screen shot.
Yes, that is the ball hitting every bit of Thomas' right hand as he tries to catch it. If Thomas had Odell Beckham Jr.'s hands that's likely a catch. Hell, if Thomas had stuck his other hand up, it also probably would've ended up being a catch, too. I wouldn't call it a drop because he only got one hand on it, but it definitely was catchable for a receiver of Thomas' size and athletic ability. Had I not gone and looked at it on my own; I would have continued thinking the ball was way over Thomas' head and that Manning had made a poor throw.
That got me to thinking. NFL Game Pass is set up so you can watch a play on the all-22 then click over to the TV copy version and the same play is already queued up. In both of the Broncos' playoff games the announcers seemed utterly disinterested in showing any mitigating factors that influenced some of the incompletions, in particular any contact that affected the routes. It was so bad that no matter what Manning did well, it was as if they were committed to reminding you just how much he sucked in the regular season. I hate listening to announcers most games as it is, but they even got me with the Jedi mind trick as well. I didn't realize just how much they set the tone for the perception of how someone performs no matter how much a person knows better until I watched the coaches film from these past two games with Manning.
Normally I can block out the bullshit and see the game as it's happening on the film, but this time I was buying the narrative hook, line and sinker, just like everybody else. If these last two games had been after the 2013 season when Peyton threw a gazillion touchdowns, I can guarantee you the entire tone of the broadcasts would've been different. We would still be talking about how nice that throw was on the fade route to Sanders where Patriots corner and last year's Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler was with him step for step, but Manning got the ball just high enough where Sanders could out-jump him.
Oh, and I must point out that Manning got that ball off with pressure right in his face from Patriots defensive tackle Alan Branch.
I'm not even sure they've shown that play more than a handful of times on SportsCenter during that game. I'm just saying ...
What about Peyton vs. the Panthers?
Of course, there's no guarantee that just because Manning played well against the Steelers and the Patriots that he will again in the Super Bowl. At the very least we should give him credit for how he has actually played the last two weeks. Maybe it wasn't vintage Manning -- whatever the fuck that is considering some of his weak playoff performances over the years when he had to play outside in the cold. But it was obviously good enough or it would be the Broncos at home on the outside looking in right now and the Patriots preparing for Super Bowl 50.
Now, after all that I'm sure the question you really want to know at this point is how do I think Manning will fare against the Panthers in Super Bowl 50?
Well, I'm glad you asked.
What's helped Manning as much as anything the past two weeks is that he's back to getting the ball out of his hands right away if at all possible. That means he is picking a guy he is pretty sure will be open based on coverage before the snap, and he isn't messing around looking for a better option on most plays. He catches the snap, takes two or three quick drop steps and fires that fucking pigskin to whomever he sees open.
That means unless the Panthers can somehow confuse Peyton Frigging Manning with their pre-snap coverage looks, it's unlikely that their pass rush is going to be able to get to him before Manning gets the ball out of his hands. Considering the fact that Robert McClain is now starting at cornerback and Cortland Finnegan is starting at nickel back for the Panthers could be a huge problem for them all game. I have a feeling Manning is going to try to target both guys early and often.
It also doesn't help that even if Thomas Davis plays -- and that's one guy whose word I'm never going to doubt -- there is almost no chance that his broken arm doesn't affect his play in a negative way, so I could also see Manning going after him in the passing game as well. By the way, does anybody know if Panthers safety Roman Harper has gotten a new eyelid or whatever, yet?
It sucks that the Panthers are so banged up on defense heading into the Super Bowl because when they were full strength earlier this season they looked like an all-time great unit with very few, if any weak links. You just can't say the same for them right now. With Manning playing well, it's just hard for me to believe he won't take advantage of the weaker links on that defense now.
If I'm Carolina, I blitz every time Manning is under center. A run blitz for sure. It appears that when Manning does throw the ball after lining up under center, it's almost always play action pass where he has to turn his back to the rush. Any kind of blitz up the middle will be hard for the offensive line to block because they are trying to show a good run-blocking fake, and Manning isn't going to get away from a guy who is on him right as he turns around to throw.
That was one way the Patriots, who had a helluva game plan on defense I might add, were able to get some big sacks on him throughout the game. Also, Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones was able to rush Broncos left guard Evan Mathis pretty good at three technique. You could tell he bothered Manning several times by getting around him. It just so happens that's where Panthers breakout defensive lineman Kawann Short also lines up most of the time. If there is one matchup where Carolina's defense has to be a mismatch on Sunday in order for them to win it is definitely Short vs. Mathis.
Good luck to both teams!
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Super Bowl 50: Peyton Manning in the best moment of media day