Remember the ad with Albert Pujols where ESPN anchors call him by his nickname, The Machine, and his inner robot offers him the options of denying the allegation or eliminating the allegators?
When he chooses to deny, his inner robot asks in a Hal-like voice, “Why didn’t you eliminate them, Albert?”
The way the two players have performed since, Pujols ought to surrender the name to Peyton Manning. For weeks now, Manning has resembled nothing so much as a football-savant cyborg with a microprocessor just a little bit faster than anyone else’s and the robotic physical skill to execute its commands.
So it was almost reassuring to see him make a couple of mistakes Sunday in Cincinnati. Robots have come to surgery already, but not yet to sports.
Manning’s mistakes also allowed the Broncos to keep developing as a contender by overcoming a little adversity on the road, requiring another fourth-quarter comeback (Manning’s 48th). For good teams, such tests are mile markers of their progress.
In their third consecutive win, a 31-23 decision over the Bengals that left them with a record of 5-3 at the season’s halfway mark, the Broncos continued to hone a dynamic combination of elite veteran leadership and impressive, improving young talent.
In the area of veteran leadership, you don’t do better than Manning on offense and Champ Bailey on defense. If anyone in that locker room is inclined toward giddiness, they are swiftly corrected.
In the area of emerging young talent, the offense is benefiting from Manning’s increased confidence in receivers Eric Decker (eight catches, 99 yards, two touchdowns) and Demaryius Thomas (six catches, 77 yards).
The defense is benefiting from Von Miller, the outstanding second-year pass rusher who added three sacks to his previous six; Wesley Woodyard, the replacement for the suspended D.J. Williams who was in on 14 tackles; and Chris Harris and Tony Carter, unheralded defensive backs who have done a better job covering NFL receivers than a series of bigger names brought in over the years to help Bailey out.
“We had great coverage,” Miller said, sharing the credit for his sacks. “Chris Harris, Champ Bailey, Rahim Moore, all those guys had great games. They were able to give us time to rush the passer. And whenever you can get time to do your job, we’ve got to get there, and that’s what we did today.”
Remarkably, Manning was not sacked all day by a Cincinnati pass rush that led the AFC with 23 going into the game. Part of it was due to the offensive line, which lost guard Chris Kuper again to a reinjured left ankle, part of it to Manning for getting rid of the ball quickly, and part of it to the Broncos’ receiver corps, which got open fast enough to give Manning early targets.
The Broncos front office under John Elway has also made a number of key veteran acquisitions now contributing in bigger ways than may have been anticipated. Keith Brooking, imported at age 36 to see if he could add a little depth and leadership to the linebacking corps, is now the middle linebacker in the base defense. Dan Koppen, picked up after New England cut him, is now the starting center. Jim Leonhard is getting more time at safety.
And Trindon Holliday, the speedster the Broncos claimed off waivers from Houston last month, made the longest play in franchise history, a 105-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the second half.
The Broncos were on their way to a second consecutive comfortable win when Manning made his first mistake. Holliday’s return of the second half kickoff made it 17-3. The Bengals responded with their first touchdown, the big play a 52-yard reception by wide-open tight end Jermaine Gresham.
The Broncos marched right back down the field in that methodical way Manning had led them over the previous five weeks, when he totaled 14 touchdown passes and one interception (and even that, a misread on a hot route by receiver Matt Willis, wasn’t Manning’s fault). After driving from their own 17 to the Bengals’ 9-yard line, the Broncos looked poised to restore their two-touchdown advantage.
If Manning throws his pass into the end zone a foot or two to the right, it might have been caught by Decker rather than Bengals cornerback Terence Newman. That would have made the score 24-10. Instead, when the Bengals turned the turnover into a field goal, the Broncos’ lead was only 17-13. It wasn’t immediately obvious whose fault that first pick was — Manning’s for leading Decker a sliver too much, or Decker for letting the smaller Newman keep him from getting to his spot. Tony Dungy, Manning’s former coach, said on NBC that Manning and Decker would be watching the video on the flight home to correct whatever the problem was.
The second Newman interception, on Manning’s very next pass, from his own 3-yard line, overshot Decker, and Manning took responsibility.
“Obviously, the interception, the second one to Newman, was a poor decision on my part,” he told KOA. “I just can’t give them that kind of field position, put our defense in a tough bind. So that was a disappointing decision on my part. But offensively we responded.”
One thing you can say for Manning — interceptions don’t chasten him in the least. He keeps heaving it, and his completion rate remains spectacular. Despite the mistakes, he ended up with more touchdowns than interceptions in Cincinnati.
“My father always talked about level zero, get back to level zero,” he told reporters afterward. “You’ve got to erase the play from your mind, a good play or a bad play, and move on to the next one. So, not the scenario that we wanted, anytime you’re on the road and you have a chance to put a team away, you’d like to. You hate to give them a little life, which we did. And give credit to them for responding. But when we had to, our team responded as well, and that was important.”
The Bengals turned his second turnover into a touchdown and a short-lived 20-17 lead. The Broncos responded with an 80-yard touchdown drive on five plays, the big ones a 30-yard completion to Decker, most of it after the catch, and a 29-yard pass interference penalty on Adam “Pacman” Jones on a pass in the end zone intended for Thomas.
The Broncos had the lead back, 24-20, and when Bailey came up with his first interception of the year on Cincinnati’s next possession — a pass to A.J. Green underthrown by Andy Dalton because of pressure from the Broncos’ pass rush, which had five sacks — Manning had a short field and turned it into another touchdown to make it 31-20.
“It’s hard to be at 100 percent every week, and so the good news is we’ve strung three wins together, and for us to continue that takes a lot of mental toughness, especially in the preparation to go on the road,” coach John Fox said.
NFL players and coaches know that plaudits from those of us in the cheap seats are less annoying than our second-guessing when they lose, but possibly more harmful. After consecutive wins over San Diego and New Orleans, everyone was already telling the Broncos how great they were. Exuberant internet columns predict they won’t lose again this season.
One of the encouraging things about these Broncos is they very firmly don’t want to hear it. This starts with Manning, who doesn’t even want to hear that he’s all the way back from last year’s injury.
“We feel good about where we are, but if we want to be a really good offense we’ve got to continue to improve,” said veteran receiver and Manning pal Brandon Stokley. “There’s things to clean up. We had a few too many drops today and we’ve got to put some more points on the board in the first half. So it’s still a work in progress.”
For the same reason, it’s probably better for the Broncos that Manning had those interceptions and the Broncos did not enjoy a second straight easy victory. No matter how much the veterans preach, complacency is a natural reaction to a series of lopsided wins. Instead, as Manning suggested, navigating some stormy seas may serve the team better in the long run.
“I think the more scenarios this team can get into, fourth quarter being down, two-minute drill to win it, whatever it is, this team needs to form its identity going through those type of situations, playing on the road in a hostile environment,” Manning said. “So any time you can persevere when you’re kind of doing it for the first time as a unit, to me that’s a real positive. So to get the win today was really key.”
It’s not often you can throw two interceptions and still finish with a passer rating over 100, but Manning finished at 105.8 by hitting 27 of 35 attempts (despite several drops) and throwing three touchdown passes, leaving him with a still-sensational ratio of 20 touchdowns and six picks on the season. He is leading his new offense, in his first year, by demonstrating personal accountability and demanding that teammates focus on the little things as much as he does.
And also playing really well, even if he does turn out to be human.