Commentary

Peyton Manning raising the stakes

Broncos suddenly must be considered serious Super Bowl XLVII contenders

Originally Published: September 14, 2012
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

When Joel Dreessen was in high school in Fort Morgan, Colo., posters of John Elway hung on his bedroom walls. The Denver Broncos were winning Super Bowls then, and Dreessen would go in his backyard and throw footballs to himself, pretending to be Elway, Terrell Davis, Shannon Sharpe, Ed McCaffrey and Rod Smith.

"Over and over and over again," Dreessen said.

So it is not lost on Dreessen, the Broncos' starting tight end this season, just where he is now, and for whom and with whom he is playing. Or, for that matter, what the goal is. The goal in Denver, as it is in every NFL city in a season's infancy, is to win the Super Bowl. The difference in Denver is that the Broncos have Peyton Manning. Because they have a quarterback who at worst is a top-10 quarterback and at best is the best, they have a legitimate chance.

[+] EnlargeJoel Dreessen
AP Photo/G. Newman LowranceJoel Dreessen has a big reason to celebrate. He's playing in his home state alongside Peyton Manning.

In this era in the National Football League, given the rules protecting quarterbacks and receivers, you can't win a Super Bowl without an elite quarterback. Look at the past several Super Bowl winners: Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady. All elite. All among the best at what they do.

So Denver's 31-19 win over Pittsburgh in Week 1 with Manning completing 73.1 percent of his passes for 253 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions did nothing to tamp down expectations. With a solid pass rush, a viable running game and receivers and tight ends whom Manning makes better, the Broncos must be considered in the mix to challenge New England for the AFC crown. Just imagine: Late January. Brady versus Manning for a trip to the Super Bowl. Just like old times.

These aren't old times, of course, but against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Manning sure looked like the Manning of old. Playing behind an experienced line that is still missing its soul, injured right guard Chris Kuper, and using the no-huddle offense, Manning orchestrated three 80-yard touchdown drives to beat a Pittsburgh team that possessed the ball for 10 minutes more than the Broncos did. Manning ran two plays in the third quarter for a grand total of 21 seconds. The first was a short pass to Eric Decker, the second a slant that Demaryius Thomas took 71 yards for a touchdown.

After the game, Manning said it felt good to get a win -- his first in more than 20 months -- but quickly turned his attention to the Broncos' upcoming Monday night game at Atlanta, calling the Falcons a "serious test."

"They're a very physical defense," Dreessen said Thursday. "They play hard. They will hit you. John Abraham is a pain in the butt. It's on the road in their stadium. It's going to be exceptionally loud."

It will be another tough test on a schedule that is full of 2011 playoff teams. Aside from the AFC West, the Broncos' schedule includes Houston, at New England, New Orleans, at Cincinnati, at Carolina and at Baltimore.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiManning was as sharp as a tack in his Denver debut, which must have Broncos fans thinking Super Bowl.

No matter. Dreessen pointed to "good veteran leadership" on the team, including Manning, although not to the exclusion of others, and a teamwide work ethic. Coach John Fox tells the team all the time, "You're either dealing with adversity or you're dealing with prosperity." Meaning, don't get too high, and don't get too low. Stay even. Stay focused. Stay in the moment.

Still, it is easier to do when the starting quarterback is adhering to, if not setting, the tone. The Broncos have 22 new players on their 53-man roster, including eight starters, Dreessen being one. He remembers the Broncos' recruitment of Manning and said it frustrated him initially because it halted any player movement. He was a free agent from Houston.

"I was like, 'What the hell,'" Dreessen said. "The whole league was waiting for it."

Then Manning chose Denver. About 48 hours later, Dreessen was on a visit to Tennessee when he got the news. His next destination would be Denver. He chose the Broncos over the Titans, Bengals and Saints, in part because, he said, "It doesn't hurt to have Peyton Manning and John Elway talking to you and believing in you."

No, that doesn't hurt. It also doesn't hurt the Broncos' Super Bowl chances. After the Steelers game, Elway stood with Manning in front of Manning's locker, just talking, one Hall of Fame quarterback to another. Super Bowl? Sure, with Manning under center, directing traffic and barking instructions, the Broncos should be in the mix.


INSIDE SLANT


The other quarterback in Monday night's matchup got off to an equally hot start. Against the Chiefs in Week 1, Matt Ryan completed 74.2 percent of his passes and led the Atlanta Falcons on scoring drives on the first eight of their nine possessions, four of which started in Kansas City territory.

Atlanta's offense has the opportunity to be one of the most potent in the NFL. Ryan has an array of weapons in wide receivers Roddy White, Julio Jones and Harry Douglas, tight end Tony Gonzalez and running back Michael Turner. New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has opened up the playbook and isn't afraid to take chances and let Ryan operate. Ryan worked during the offseason on his accuracy, and it showed throughout the preseason and in Week 1.

The Falcons scored 40 points against Kansas City and could have scored 60. Four trips into the red zone ended in field goals. And consider this about Ryan: He is 26-4 at home since joining the Falcons in 2008, and dating back to last season, he has attempted 197 passes without an interception. Ryan will face a Denver defense that last week sacked Ben Roethlisberger five times and intercepted him once.

•  •  •

Coaches are curious creatures. Single-minded. Reluctant to provide much information. Paranoid about giving away any advantage. They can be prickly with the media, particularly when questioned about an underperforming player.

Consider exchange this Wednesday between New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin and the media members about rookie running back David Wilson, who fumbled on his second carry of the season opener against Dallas and didn't play another snap.

[+] EnlargeTom Coughlin
Al Bello/Getty ImagesTom Coughlin is nowhere near the hot seat, but you wouldn't know it by listening to him on Wednesday.

Question: Did you talk to David Wilson this week about fumbling?

Tom Coughlin: Yes.

Q: How has Wilson responded?

TC: Well.

Q: Define "well."

TC: He's anxious to do right.

Q: Are you anticipating him getting the ball on Sunday?

TC: Certainly.

Q: Is he out of the doghouse?

TC: Well, he's a little out of the doghouse.

Q: How can he regain your trust?

TC: Ball security.

Talk about curt.

Coughlin needs to let Wilson out of the proverbial doghouse, and fast. The Giants play a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team this week that in Week 1 held the Carolina Panthers, who finished third in the NFL in rushing in 2011, to 10 net rushing yards and just 10 points. Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams, in for the injured Jonathan Stewart, was stuffed for minus-7 yards on his first two rushes and finished the game with minus-1 yard. The Buccaneers sacked Cam Newton three times, intercepted him twice and allowed him to gain 4 yards on five rushing attempts. Under first-year coach Greg Schiano, Tampa Bay's defense looks to be no joke. Aggressive. Fast. Effective up front.

After finishing last in rushing offense in 2011, the Giants used the final pick in the first round of April's draft to select Wilson out of Virginia Tech. They drafted him to be a viable alternative to 33-year-old Ahmad Bradshaw. He has ball-security issues, and Coughlin clearly wanted to drive home a point. He did that. Move on. Coughlin tore the guy down. Now it is time to build him back up, because the Giants desperately need him.

•  •  •

Scoring was up in Week 1. Way up. NFL teams combined to score 791 points, the second-highest total in league history -- behind Week 12 of the 2008 season -- and the most ever for an opening weekend. Five teams -- the Jets, Ravens, Bears, Falcons and Redskins -- scored at least 40 points, the most for Week 1.

Will the trend continue?

•  •  •

It has been fashionable this week to blister Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick following his four-interception performance against the Cleveland Browns in Week 1. He did not play well. He made mistakes a 32-year-old quarterback with 10 seasons of experience should not make, such as throwing across his body and forcing throws -- that were picked -- when he should have just taken a sack.

[+] EnlargeMichael Vick
Drew Hallowell/Getty ImagesMichael Vick threw a career-high 56 passes and equaled his career high of four picks in Week 1.

Vick deserves the criticism, but Eagles coach Andy Reid deserves it more. Why on earth did he have Vick throw 56 passes, more than any other quarterback in Week 1? Drew Brees threw 52 passes -- the only other quarterback with more than 50 attempts -- but the Saints were playing from behind for most of their game against Washington. The Eagles had the lead. And they had LeSean McCoy, who averaged 7.1 yards per carry on his seven attempts in the first half.

McCoy was effective, and Cleveland isn't exactly known for its run-stuffing defense. It wasn't until Vick threw his fourth interception, which was returned for a touchdown that gave Cleveland a 16-10 lead early in the fourth quarter, that the Eagles really committed to running the ball.

The Eagles will face a much tougher defense in the Ravens on Sunday. It would behoove Philadelphia to alleviate some of the pressure from Vick and run the ball. Control the clock. Keep Joe Flacco & Co. off the field. And limit the opportunities for Vick to make a mistake. After roughing up Cincinnati on Monday night, Flacco said that being aggressive and putting up points puts pressure on the opponent to keep up, which leads to mistakes. The Ravens' defense is capable of capitalizing on those mistakes, which is why the Eagles should run the ball, as counterintuitive as that is to Reid and his playcaller, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg.

•  •  •

Mark it down. Tom Brady is money in home openers. The New England Patriots quarterback has never lost one in 10 attempts. His 10 starts in home openers without a loss are the most to begin a career since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Rich Gannon had seven. Jay Cutler has six, including this season. Ben Roethlisberger has five and could have six if the Steelers had beaten the Jets on Sunday.

Brady is 35-1 in his past 36 regular-season starts at Gillette Stadium. The only loss was to the Giants last season. It doesn't bode well for the Arizona Cardinals, who travel to New England on Sunday.


ALL-22


This season, for the first time, the NFL is making the coaches tape -- known as the all-22, since it shows all 22 players on the field at the same time -- available to fans via its website. It costs $69.99 and includes replays of the broadcasts of each game plus a condensed version of the broadcasts. For serious football fans, it's a worthwhile investment.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesRobert Griffin III impressed just as much with his decisions as he did with his feet against the Saints.

This week, I watched the coaches tape of Robert Griffin III's debut against New Orleans. The first drive was impressive. Mike and Kyle Shanahan scripted a drive that included simple bubble screens to wide receivers. Playing out of the shotgun almost exclusively, Griffin completed every pass, and the plan allowed him to get comfortable and gain confidence on the road in a hostile environment.

The play that really impressed Greg Cosell, executive producer of ESPN's "NFL Matchup" show, was the Redskins' first of their second drive. After Washington had dinked and dunked its way down the field on the opening drive to take a 3-0 lead, Griffin lined up under center, and out of play-action looked to tight end Niles Paul on the left. Paul was covered by a linebacker, and in a split second, with Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins bearing down on him, Griffin found Pierre Garcon in the middle of the field at the 30-yard line. Garcon grabbed the high throw, beat safety Roman Harper and ran in for an 88-yard touchdown.

"His mental and physical speed of reaction was phenomenal," Cosell said of Griffin. "Not only did he have to come off Paul, he also had pressure and he threw the ball to Garcon. This is where being a quick-twitch athlete is phenomenal. Griffin was so quick mentally and physically."

In his notes after watching the tape of Griffin's debut, Cosell wrote: "Redskins ran as much of a college offense as I've seen. Many plays look similar to Baylor." Washington will play at St. Louis on Sunday. It is unlikely the Redskins will continue with the college offense now that it is on tape.


STATS & INFO


It's a big week for several teams with Super Bowl aspirations. Since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990, only 12 percent of teams that started 0-2 have reached the playoffs, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Of the 46 teams to win a Super Bowl, only three of them -- the 2007 Giants, 2001 Patriots and 1993 Cowboys -- did so after starting the season 0-2.

That is a prescient statistic, given that the past seven Super Bowl winners all started 0-1. Green Bay beat Chicago 23-10 Thursday night to avoid starting the season 0-2.


#theytweetedit



The Indianapolis Star columnist went on to say that had the Colts re-signed Manning in March, he would've had no weapons on offense with which to work. Good point.



It's not unusual for teams to pipe in crowd noise during practice, particularly when they are getting ready to play a road game in a dome. The Eagles once piped in crowd noise when preparing to play the Chiefs at Arrowhead. But for a home game? That is unusual.



Fitzgerald will actually be conducting the opening song of the Phoenix Symphony on Thursday night. It's vintage Fitzgerald, who travels the world in the offseason and is committed to charity work.



It is pure comedy, Clayton with a mullet channeling his inner metalhead. If you liked the commercial, you'll like the outtakes below, too.



PICK 'EM


All games Sunday unless otherwise noted

Tampa Bay (1-0) at New York Giants (0-1), 1 p.m.: The Super Bowl glow would wear off really quickly if the Giants dropped to 0-2. Giants 17, Bucs 13.


Oakland (0-1) at Miami (0-1), 1 p.m.: How soon before Joe Philbin and Mike Sherman regret starting Ryan Tannehill as a rookie? Raiders 20, Dolphins 9.


Houston (1-0) at Jacksonville (0-1), 1 p.m.: Matt Schaub has a new contract. All is good. Texans 27, Jaguars 17.


Cleveland (0-1) at Cincinnati (0-1), 1 p.m.: Cleveland's defense is pretty good. Its offense isn't. Bengals 17, Browns 10.


Kansas City (0-1) at Buffalo (0-1), 1 p.m.: Mario Williams will continue to get ripped if he doesn't get to Matt Cassel. Big money. Big expectations. Chiefs 24, Buffalo 23.


Baltimore (1-0) at Philadelphia (1-0), 1 p.m.: What is up with Vegas making the Ravens an underdog? Ravens 35, Eagles 24.


New Orleans (0-1) at Carolina (0-1), 1 p.m.: Huge game for two teams with high expectations. One will end up in an 0-2 hole. Panthers 27, Saints 24.


Arizona (0-1) at New England (1-0), 1 p.m.: It's tough to fly across the country to play. Tougher still when the destination is New England. Patriots 35, Cardinals 21.


Minnesota (1-0) at Indianapolis (0-1), 1 p.m.: All hail Adrian Peterson, the greatest running back in Minnesota history. Vikings 24, Colts 21.


Washington (1-0) at St. Louis (0-1), 4:05 p.m.: Repeat after me: It was just one game. It was just one game. It was just one game. Redskins 35, Rams 24.


Dallas (1-0) at Seattle (0-1), 4:05 p.m.: This Dallas team is hungry, and for good reason. If the Cowboys want to be a playoff team, this is a game they must win. Cowboys 23, Seahawks 17.


New York Jets (1-0) at Pittsburgh (0-1), 4:25 p.m.: The Jets' defense looked as good as any in the NFL against the Bills. Jets 27, Steelers 24.


Tennessee (0-1) at San Diego (1-0), 4:25 p.m.: Wherefore art thou, CJ2K? Chargers 31, Titans 14.


Detroit (1-0) at San Francisco (1-0), 8:20 p.m.: Are you for real, Alex Smith? 49ers 27, Lions 24.


Denver (1-0) at Atlanta (1-0), 8:30 p.m. Monday: Peyton Manning is back on "Monday Night Football" for the first time in nearly two years? Yeah, that's a big game. Falcons 40, Broncos 37.


Last week: 11-4   Season: 11-4.


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