Ron Cook: He's not Manning of old, just merely old
January 17, 2016 12:00 AM
David Zalubowski/Associated Press
In this Jan. 13, 2016, file photo, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning looks to throw a pass during an NFL football practice at the team's headquarters, in Englewood, Colo. "A lot of people have looked at him the last few weeks and said, `Wow, this guy is not who I thought he was,'" said retired receiver Brandon Stokley, a longtime favorite of Manning's. "It's great for people to see who he really is. He'll do anything to help the team."
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
I remember something Aaron Smith said when asked to compare Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, two of the greatest quarterbacks of his or any generation.
"We feel like we can rattle Peyton," Smith said. "Brady, not so much."
That was a decade ago. Smith was a terrific defensive end on some great Steelers defenses. Manning and Brady were in their prime, building foundations that will make them first-ballot Hall of Famers.
Imagine how the Steelers must be feeling today when they face Manning and the Denver Broncos in an AFC divisional playoff.
Manning will be 40 March 24. His body is broken. He is playing on a bad left foot and has no mobility. He has lost his ability to throw the ball down the field. He is not a better choice than backup Brock Osweiler to start the game, although Osweiler is dealing with a right knee injury.
And Ben Roethlisberger is supposed to be the quarterback with issues today?
None of the Steelers will say a bad word about Manning, of course. Everyone from Roethlisberger to Cam Heyward to Mike Tomlin spent last week telling everybody how great he is.
But the Steelers were talking about the Manning of old, not the old Manning. He has won five NFL MVP awards, made 14 Pro Bowls, been All-Pro seven times. His 186 regular-season wins tie him with Brett Favre for most in NFL history.
He's not that quarterback now. He's better as a $12-million-a-year pitchman for, among others, Nationwide and Papa John's International. He was benched for the first time in his amazing career in the second half of a loss Nov. 15 to Kansas City. He threw four interceptions that day, bringing his total to an NFL-worst 17. He missed the next six games and a seventh start after being diagnosed with a tear in the plantar fascia near his heel.
The Broncos are convinced Manning is healthy and will be better today. They are thrilled he has enough mobility on that bad foot to take snaps from both under center and in the shotgun. They believe that will make their run game more successful. He's a master at recognizing blitzes and getting his offense into the right play.
"There's nothing that he hasn't seen," Denver coach Gary Kubiak said.
The Broncos will be happy if Manning just doesn't turn the ball over. He has reached that stage of his career where he is merely a game-manager. The Broncos believe their defense -- No. 1 in the NFL in yards allowed (283.1 per game), No. 1 in sacks (52) and No. 4 in points allowed (18.5 per game) -- is good enough to get the win.
Osweiler throws better and deeper and runs better, at least when his knee is right. He would be more frightening than Manning to a Steelers defense that has been stout against the run and often bad against the pass, especially the deep pass. The Steelers saw what Osweiler can do when the teams met Dec. 20 at Heinz Field. He picked them apart in the first half, building a 27-13 lead. The Steelers were much more successful against him in the second half after his left shoulder was injured and won, 34-27.
But Osweiler, who was good enough to lead the Broncos to wins against New England and Cincinnati, was a big part of five turnovers in their final regular-season game against San Diego. Manning came off the bench in the third quarter -- his first NFL relief appearance -- and brought the Broncos back from a 13-7 deficit in a 27-20 win that secured the AFC's No. 1 seed.
"It wasn't all about passing that day," Heyward said. "He only threw the ball nine times and completed five. He was able to check to the right running plays and put them in position to win.
"He doesn't have to be the same quarterback physically. You can't fool him. He'll out-think anybody. He's going to know where you're lining up before you're even there. That leads to easier throws and better run plays.
"He's the best-thinking quarterback there is."
Will that be good enough for a Denver win today?
Manning's postseason history also is working against him. He led the Broncos to one Super Bowl appearance and the Indianapolis Colts to two others, winning with the Colts against the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI after the 2006 season.
But Manning is 11-13 in the postseason. Roethlisberger is 11-5, by comparison. The Steelers beat Manning and the Colts, 21-18, in the AFC divisional round after the 2005 season. He has lost his first playoff game nine times, most by an NFL quarterback. His passer rating in the postseason is 88.5, down from 96.5 in the regular season. His touchdown-to-interception ratio of 1.58-to-1 is down from 2.15-to-1.
There's no doubt the Broncos will rally around Manning. They know this could be his final season. They will try to send him out on top the way they sent out John Elway, the way the Steelers did Jerome Bettis, the way the Baltimore Ravens did Ray Lewis.
Look for the Steelers to spoil the party.
Steelers 23, Broncos 17.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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