Is Peyton Manning washed up? Short answer: no.
It sure looked like it early against the Falcons and the nation was able to witness his errant passing on Monday Night Football.
The Falcons used Manning’s mistakes to jump on the Broncos early but were forced to hold on for a 27-21 victory before a raucous crowd of 70,427 at the Georgia Dome.
“We needed everyone in that locker room tonight to get the job done,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “I’m really proud of the performance we turned in tonight, especially on the defensive side of the ball.”
In this battle of no-huddle offenses, one operated by Manning, the master, and the other by Matt Ryan, still the aspiring star, the Falcons prevailed to improve to 2-0. The Broncos dropped to 1-1.
The Falcons’ secondary was ready for Manning and his legendary resume, hand gestures and play calling. Atlanta intercepted three of his passes and caused a fumble by former Georgia standout Knowshon Moreno to halt another drive.
“We felt that if we could rattle him early, we could dictate the flow of the game,” free safety Thomas DeCoud said. “The main focus was to confuse him all game.”
But when Manning’s rally came — he drove the Broncos 45 yards to close to within six points with 3:25 to play — Ryan connected on a critical third-and-5 pass with Julio Jones, achieving a first down with just over minutes left, sealing the deal.
“That is something that we really harp on whenever we are out, whether it’s practice or what have you,” left guard Justin Blalcok said. “We have a four-minute offense where we want to grind the clock out. We were hoping to do it the drive before better than we did. That is something that offensive football teams pride themselves on, being able to go in there and not give the ball back. It was very important not to give those guys another shot.
“We all know the situation there. Yes, when we saw [Jones] getting down the field a little bit everybody had a big sigh of relief.”
Manning opened in a fog. On his first pass of the game, cornerback Dunta Robinson forced the ball out and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon nearly came up with an interception. After a run for a loss of 2 yards on a run by Willis McGahee, strong safety William Moore intercepted Manning’s pass intended for tight end Jacob Tamme and returned it to Denver’s 1-yard line.
It took the Falcons, who struggled with their short yardage runs last season, three plays to get running back Michael Turner into the end zone to make it 7-0.
Manning was making just his second start in his Colorado comeback. The premier quarterback of his day, was out of the league for 20 months after undergoing neck surgeries. He was released by his former team, the Indianapolis Colts, and is trying to resurrect his career in Denver.
Later in the first quarter, he completed a pass to Brandon Stokley before being sacked by Weatherspoon. On his next throw down the field, DeCoud intercepted the pass and returned it 15 yards to Denver’s 33-yard line.
The Falcons drove to the 19, but Julio Jones dropped an apparent touchdown pass in the end zone on third down. Matt Bryant made a 37-yard field goal to put the Falcons up 10-0 with 9:46 left in the first quarter.
On Denver’s third possession, Manning, apparently determined to throw the ball down the field, was intercepted again. This time, backup cornerback Robert McClain, who was in for Asante Samuel, intercepted a pass intended for Stokley and returned it 32 yards to Atlanta’s 47 yard line.
The Falcons couldn’t convert McClain’s interception into any points and were forced to punt.
On Denver’s next drive, Manning didn’t try a throw into the teeth of the Falcons’ nickel defense and the Broncos were forced to punt.
The game took a turn for the bizarre near the end of the first quarter, as the replacement officials struggled to maintain control on a routine fumble and pile-up play.
After linebacker Stephen Nicholas forced Knowshon Moreno to fumble, mayhem broke out after the play. The officials never signaled possession and were slow to clear up the pile. While Denver coach John Fox got in the middle of the action. Samuel got into a pushing match with Denver guard Zane Beadles. Defensive end Ray Edwards traded shots with Denver’s Derek Wolfe and drew a penalty. Denver’s J.D. Walton was seen touching an official.
Smith was kind to the officials.
“That was the longest first quarter that I’ve ever been involved in,” Smith said. “It looked lik we were going to have a four hour game, but it was a very long first quarter. We kept a bunch of people up late.”
When order was finally restored, the Falcons had the ball at their 17-yard line. The drive stalled at Denver’s 24 and Bryant added a 42-yard field goal to make it 13-0.
The defense forced another punt and the Falcons offense put together their first sustained drive of the game operating from the no-huddle.
Ryan masterfully connected with Harry Douglas, White, Tony Gonzalez as they marched down to Denver’s 1. Ryan tossed a touchdowns pass to Gonzalez. Bryant added the extra point to make it 20-0 with 4:33 left in the first half.
Manning and the Broncos finally cobbled together a drive, which was aided by a fourth-and-1 pass interference call on Dominique Franks. He left the game with a head injury, which normally is reported as a concussion.
Nine plays later, Manning tossed a 17-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas, which was at first ruled incomplete. Denver trailed 20-7 at the intermission and three of the replacement officials’ calls on the field were reversed by replay officials in the booth.
“I’ve been around this league long enough to know that it’s tough to win regardless of who you’re playing,” said Ryan, who completed 24 of 36 passes for 21 yards and two touchdowns. “When you’re playing against a Hall of Fame quarterback it’s even tougher.”
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