FOXBOROUGH — For so long, it was all the same. The same team, the same city, the same receivers, the same system. There were changes, of course. But nothing like this. And so, five weeks into the regular season, the Broncos and Peyton Manning are still not up to the exacting standards of one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history.
That was evident Sunday afternoon, as the Broncos fell into a deep hole against the Patriots, coming back a bit in a 31-21 loss that dropped Denver to 2-3 on the season.
“I don’t make the comparisons. I don’t go back. I know everyone else does,” Manning said. “We are working on things and building things. It doesn’t happen right away. You have to have game experience.”
Asked if there were things that he would like to do on offense, but couldn’t because of the lack of time together, Manning said, “The answer to your question is probably yes.”
“We have goals to get to, certain things we’d like to get to,” he added. “I think you’ve got to have games to play, experience, situations, scenarios, coverages, different types of defenders, they have to occur in games.
“I think as you get that experience, then you can grow as an offense. I feel that we will do that.”
But they haven’t yet.
Though much of the problem Sunday was a defense that didn’t slow the Patriots’ offense — leading to a franchise-record 35 first downs — the Broncos’ offense contributed three lost fumbles. That didn’t help.
“I don’t know if [Manning] is way up on the list of my worries, to be quite honest with you,” Denver coach John Fox said. “This is a football team. And mixing it all together, you saw a week ago, we put it all together. I would have expected us to put it all together more this week, but we fell a little bit short of that.”
They couldn’t quite get their rhythm on offense, couldn’t quite figure it out in the brief time the Broncos were on the field against the Patriots’ defense. But still, they were nearly able to mount a comeback in the fourth quarter.
“Any time you have a quarterback like that on your squad, the game’s never over,” Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said. “I don’t care how many points you’re up or down, it’s never over. It showed [Sunday].”
Manning, in many ways, looked to be close to his old self, minus the familiarity that was so evident in his Indianapolis days. He finished the game 31 for 44 with 345 yards and three touchdowns. He bested Tom Brady’s 104.6 quarterback rating with a 116.2.
And he didn’t show any hesitation in throwing the deep ball, even after his first long pass to Demaryius Thomas — for 43 yards — resulted in one of those lost fumbles. Despite the mistake, Thomas finished the game with nine catches for 188 yards.
As Fox said, “I think our guy did an outstanding job.”
Manning had four completions of more than 20 yards, all of those balls arriving in the receivers’ hands beyond the 20-yard mark. And though the vast majority of his passes were short, fewer than 5 yards from the line of scrimmage, it seemed clear that the Broncos are not worrying about his arm strength or about a few imperfect passes in the first few games of Manning’s comeback season.
“With Peyton’s situation, I think they’re overmagnified,” executive vice president of football operations John Elway said earlier in the week of concerns about Manning’s ability to throw the deep ball. “I think every quarterback throws balls that flutter every game, and I think that there is some overmagnification when they look at Peyton.
“I do not have any concerns, as it continues to get better week in and week out, the strength continues to get better. As he continues to do his rehab, we’ll see that grow.”
That’s not the only thing that should improve with time. So, too, should the communication, the experience, those game situations to which Manning was referring. Time will help, as it usually does.
There is a work-in-progress feel to this Broncos’ offense, though not to Manning, at least not as much as might have been expected. Still, making it all work in Denver has not been as seamless as it always seemed to be in Indianapolis.
Denver is not the same. And Manning, despite his skill, despite his arm strength, despite his Hall of Fame statistics, is still trying to adjust.
“It’s not easy,” Manning said. “It is a transition, one that you continue to go through. I’ve played here a number of times, but under different circumstances. It’s the first time it’s ever happened to me.
“But it’s definitely different. There’s no question about it.”
Peyton Manning might have pulled off another improbable comeback against the Patriots if not for these Denver boots:
1st quarter (12:33 left): Demaryius Thomas fumble — This 43yard pass and catch to the New England 10 might have been the opening touchdown of the game if not for Sterling Moore.
3d quarter (9:05): On third and 17 at the New England 43, the Patriots hand it off to Danny Woodhead for an unlikely, drivesustaining 19yard gain. The Patriots score on the drive to make it 247.
3d quarter (5:00): Peyton Manning fumble — On the first play on the next series, Rob Ninkovich forces a fumble with a sack and Vince Wilfork recovers at Denver’s 14; two plays later, the Patriots score to make it 317.
4th quarter (10:54): With the score 3114 and Denver driving, Willis McGahee drops a Manning dumpdown for a sure first down on fourth and 1 at the New England 47.
4th quarter (3:48): McGahee fumbles (caused by Ninkovich) at the New England 11 with the Patriots holding a 3121 lead.