- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Like most other football fans and those directly involved in the game, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was interested in the 2012 Peyton Manning free-agent tour. It was rare to see a quarterback of Manning's caliber on the open market, and in the perfect Belichick world, Manning would have landed with a team not on the Patriots' schedule.
As it turned out, Manning's final three choices -- Titans, Cardinals and Broncos -- were all on New England's 2012 slate, so it quickly became a matter of when, not if.
The "when" has arrived, with anticipation already building inside the Patriots' facility for Sunday's home game against the Manning-led Broncos (CBS, 4:25 p.m. ET).
"I was definitely interested to see," Belichick said when asked how closely he followed Manning's free-agent decision-making process. "He's an impact player for whatever team he's on. I'm not saying that I'm really excited about having to face him again, but you have to play somebody. ...
"It's [been] competitive with Denver and with Peyton, and now those two have kind of combined, so I guess that's good. But I can't say this is the quarterback you really want to face."
Manning, who is 7-12 lifetime against the Patriots (including playoffs), has impressed Belichick and Patriots players with how he's returned to action after missing the 2011 season because of multiple neck surgeries.
"I think it's incredible what he's been able to do to overcome that injury," third-year cornerback Devin McCourty said. "I'm really not surprised with him being one of the guys to do that."
In directing the Broncos to a 2-2 record (wins over the Steelers and Raiders; losses to the Falcons and Texans), the 36-year-old Manning is completing 64.7 percent of his passes and has totaled 1,162 passing yards. He has eight touchdowns and three interceptions, and his downfield throws haven't always had the desired zip.
Last year when the injured Manning came to town as a member of the Colts, he spent time before the game circling the stadium to sign autographs. He said fans couldn't have been nicer, but he should expect a different type of welcome this Sunday.
As for the Patriots, one of the themes Monday was they wanted to quickly turn the page from their 52-28 win over the Bills. Thus, they were happy to talk about Manning and the Broncos.
"Scary team. When you have Peyton running the show, that's always a good start," starting right cornerback Kyle Arrington said. "If not the smartest, he's one of the smartest to ever play the position. He does a great job of getting his team in the right play and right situation."
Thus, disguise was a buzzword among Patriots coaches and players with Manning, who has completed 61.8 percent of his passes over his career versus the Patriots, with 38 touchdowns and 29 interceptions.
"I think you have to show him a look and disguise it well. He's so experienced that he's basically seen it all," reserve cornerback Marquice Cole said. "He's going to know what's going on, but I think that's the only way to make an impact on him. You can't come out, just line up and think he won't know what's going on. He'll pick it apart."
"You have to be careful about giving him opportunities, because he'll usually find them," Belichick added. "We have to do a good job of disguising and keeping him off-balance and trying to make him figure it out after the snap or as late as possible. You certainly don't want to just show it to him too many times and let him take a run at it."
Belichick added that what the Broncos are running with Manning is "pretty much like the Colts' [old] offense." That had defensive end Rob Ninkovich thinking back to some of the keys to slowing down the attack.
"The best thing playing Peyton Manning is pressuring him, trying to get after him," he said. "He's a great football player and he's been doing it for a long time. We're going to try to get him uncomfortable."
Manning has already been sacked eight times through four games this season. If that pace holds, it will be the most sacks allowed by a Manning-led offense in a season.
While Belichick and Patriots players seemed to go out of their way to point out that the Broncos are more than just Manning, they know it's Manning who has changed the complexion of the Denver offense -- and also the franchise.
"I don't think many guys are surprised at what he does. You know he's a great player. You know he's a competitor," McCourty said. "My short time in the league, everything I've looked at from him have been great performances and leadership."
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