FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – One man's frustration was another man's "fun."
This is where the 2-3 Denver Broncos find themselves five weeks into the Peyton Manning era. On Sunday night, after a 31-21 loss to New England, Manning walked to the lectern and grimaced. It wasn't the look of a man in pain, at least not the physical kind.
A few minutes later, wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, a man whose young career is coming of age as he works with Manning, referred to this experience as "fun." Sure, Thomas was upset with himself over a fumble in the opening minutes of the game, but this experience is all new for him. He's the guy who's learning on the fly, gobbling up every bit of knowledge that Manning can lay on him as if he was being handed pebbles of gold.
"I've never played with a quarterback who reads a defense like him," Thomas said. "There are times we see something that we're not quite ready for and then we talk about it right away and figure it out... If you know what you're doing, it's not hard to figure out how to adjust to stuff, but you have to see it first and then talk about."
The truth is that the answers are all there for Manning and the Broncos. The problem is that the answers are just not right at their fingertips at the right moment. Or worse, the answers slip out of their fingertips at the wrong moment, such as what happened to Thomas.
Facing a third-and-5 on the game's opening drive, Manning and Thomas had enough confidence to challenge New England. The result was a 43-yard completion to the New England 10-yard line that took an unfortunate turn when Patriots defensive back Sterling Moore stripped the ball from Thomas for a turnover.
Or there was the gutsy fourth-and-1 decision Manning made at the line, calling for Thomas to go deep against single coverage with 4:30 to go in the game. The result was a 28-yard gain that put the Broncos at the New England 14. Sadly for Denver, a fumble two plays later dashed any hope of a miracle finish. Additionally, there was the pass that Manning badly overthrew toward a wide-open Jacob Tamme in the second quarter.
"We thought we had a good plan coming in," Manning said. "[We did] some things we had not done before, had not shown before and I thought they were pretty effective. Like I said, we had a chance on that first possession [when Thomas fumbled] … anytime you can start the game on the road with a touchdown with points and settle the crowd down. Instead we sort of flipped it and it gave them some momentum."
Again, this was not about one particular play; it was a series of things that are part of the work-in-progress state of the Broncos. The problem for Manning is whether the progress will come fast enough. As the grimace indicated, there is an uneasiness to Manning that goes beyond simply changing teams after all those years in Indianapolis. He is in a personal race against time in a team sport where you can't really make things happen faster.
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"We are working on things and building things and it doesn't happen right away," Manning said. "You have to have game experience … there are things that we have goals to get to, certain things we would like to get to, and I think you have to have games to play, experience, situations, scenarios, coverages, different types of defenders, whatever those may be. They have to occur in games and as you get that experience you can grow and I feel that we will do that."
Yes, it's easy to summarize this game as one New England dominated and could have won much easier. The Patriots had a 31-7 lead and were never in any serious danger. For the second week in a row, New England rushed for more than 200 yards, grinding up an opponent with a running game similar to its Super Bowl championship days from 2001 to 2004.
Those were the days when the Patriots used to control Manning. Whether it was in the regular season or in the playoffs, they created difficult tests and puzzles he couldn't solve.
From 2005 to 2010, that all flipped. As the Patriots' defense declined, Manning became the dominant figure. After Manning's year away in 2011, change of teams and this victory, New England fans might be tempted to believe that the Patriots have regained control of the relationship.
They would be fooling themselves. Manning completed 31 of 44 passes for 345 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
In fact, despite the final score, the Patriots are still a troubled defensive team dependent on playing simple two-deep coverage most of the game as they try to force turnovers. It's the kind of stuff that Manning usually chews up, spits out and then laughs at just to make a point.
Then he comes out for the postgame media session and does his "Aw, shucks" routine.
Instead, what the world is seeing right now is a pensive Manning. Sometimes he's that way in a game when he misses a throw he would have made while munching Oreos for dessert after a Papa John's dinner as he sat in front of his Sony TV watching commercials for all those products.
Sometimes he's that way as he tries to figure out just what he and his teammates are comfortable doing. He's trying like hell to get there before time runs out on his career. Manning is way beyond the learning phase of his career.
At the other end, Thomas, who had nine catches for 188 yards as he takes advantage of his immense talent, is like an eager high school student. Throw something new and challenging at Thomas and he consumes it.
"It's so much fun," Thomas said of his still-brief time working with Manning.
Unfortunately for Manning, that part can't go any faster. That's why his reaction is to grimace. For Manning, this is a real-world situation where he needs to come up with solutions now.
Or see all that great knowledge go to waste.
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