ATLANTA – Down in the bowels of the Georgia Dome, right next to the equipment truck getting loaded and a hallway removed from the bus that would get he and the Denver Broncos the heck out of here, Peyton Manning was adamant about one thing from a 27-21 loss Monday to the Falcons.
You know those three interceptions – to William Moore on his second pass attempt, to Thomas DeCoud on his fourth and to Robert McClain on his eighth – he threw to start the game, the three interceptions that ended the Broncos' first three drives, the three interceptions that staked the Falcons to a 10-0 lead and got the Dome rocking?
Those three interceptions had nothing, absolutely nothing to do with his physical ability.
Nothing to do with lingering recovery from the neck injury that cost him the 2011 season, spawned the "Suck for Luck" campaign in Indianapolis and sent the four-time MVP to Denver. Nothing to do with the "noodle" arm, as a reporter once suggested. Nothing to do with limitations he's mentioned as recently as last Sunday.
Nothing at all. Nope. No way.
"Decision-making," Manning said, firmly.
This, the Broncos can only hope to be true. Decision-making can be improved, sharpened, forgotten about, overcome, whatever. Manning has made plenty of bad decisions in his career – he's now thrown 201 career picks in the regular season alone.
"I had six in a game," he noted of a 2007 loss to San Diego.
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That's what he wants everyone to take from this one: Old Peyton just screwed up early, tried to force some balls into coverage and got picked three straight possessions. Unfortunately, his hangdog face says, it happens.
"Three really poor decisions," he said.
Manning took all of the blame, as a leader of his stature does: "In the end I put our team in too far of a hole." He said there was no confusion over play-calling or the offense. No one ran a poor route. This wasn't about crowd noise or anything the Falcons did. He just played terribly in that first quarter.
"I don't make any excuses when it comes to turning the ball over," he said. "I've got to take care of the ball better."
Ever throw three in a row to start a game, Manning was asked.
"Oh, I'm sure I have. You play as long as I have you've seen about everything," the quarterback answered.
That's Peyton the pro, gallows humor and all. But even as his teammates suggested there is nothing amiss with Peyton – even as guys such as Brandon Stokley, who played with him back in the prime years in Indy, said there is the same zip and accuracy on the ball – there absolutely has to be doubts.
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It doesn't take a veteran coach to see Manning threw some wobbly passes. Or that he sailed the ball on some of his throws. Or that when he was cranking up the fast ball it looked like he had to step in and really heave his arm up to speed, far more than in years past.
Manning, 36, was brilliant a week ago in Denver's 31-19 victory over Pittsburgh. He went 19 of 26 for 256 yards, two touchdowns and zero turnovers. He may not have been peak-performance Manning, but suddenly the Broncos were a Super Bowl contender because it looked like they had a close-enough version of No. 18.
Then on this humid [even inside a dome] endless night in the deep South came those three picks, one seemingly uglier than the next.
If this was the arm, if this was the residual of that surgery, then the story changes for the Broncos. If this was a limitation then perhaps Manning is susceptible to defensive coordinators who see it on film and force him to throw deep over the middle – "We were able to disguise coverages very well," Falcons coach Mike Smith said.
Denver coach John Fox cited the growing pains of learning a new offense. "You have to remember Peyton Manning is a new QB in our system, he is still adjusting to teammates and the things that we are doing won't happen overnight. That's just a fact. You know he is going to get better."
Manning, however, shook that concern aside. He stuck with blaming his own decisions.
A week ago, Manning tried to downplay the hype over his strong play, noting it was just one game and mocking the idea he was vindicated. He has every right to point the same out about Monday. There's another game next week, home against Houston. The NFL is the league of overreacting and over analysis though, and Manning knows the deal. He can't play like that and not get dissected, not have questions raised.
He basically accepted that reality and instead tried to spin things to the positive.
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After all, not everything was lost here. The Broncos' defense showed some resolve. The offense came back and was primed for a dramatic final drive, only to not get the ball back. Manning made some plays, he finished 24-of-37 for 241 yards and a TD.
Besides plenty of good teams are going to come in here and lose to the explosive Falcons.
That said, pick after pick after pick, laboring throw after fluttering pass, everything becomes a fair question. Is the arm really back? Can it ever get back? Was this really just poor decision making and what looked like physical limitations actually weren't?
"Disappointing," Manning said. "Just made three bad decisions."
Denver can only hope that's the case.
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