Packers expect Manning 'to play his A game'

Ryan Wood
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Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) prepare to pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Aaron Josefczyk)

Remove his name, and his arm hasn’t struck fear into opposing defenses. Here is a 39-year-old quarterback, a few years removed from four neck surgeries. He leads the NFL with 10 interceptions in six games, with just seven touchdown passes.

But this is Peyton Manning. A first-ballot hall of famer. The most prolific quarterback ever. His numbers are ridiculous.

Manning has passed for more than 70,000 yards over his career, an NFL-record 537 touchdowns, with five MVP awards.

“You look at the MVPs, the Super Bowl victory, the countless records he holds,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “I think it just goes to show the type of athlete that he is. It’s hard to come in year in and year out and live up to that standard. He’s managed to do that.”

Those numbers can be intimidating for opposing defenses. So can his 14 Pro Bowls, and seven All-Pro mentions. For more than 15 years, he played the quarterback position as fine as it ever has been played. But this Peyton Manning, the one the Green Bay Packers will play Sunday night, isn’t that Peyton Manning.

This Peyton Manning leads the NFL’s 29th-ranked offense. The Broncos went 23 straight possessions without finding the end zone earlier this month, a stretch of eight quarters.

Manning has thrown an interception in every game this season, with multiple picks in his past three games. For the first time since his rookie year, he has more interceptions than touchdowns six games into a season.

Strip away the past two decades, all the accolades and accomplishments, the legacy. You’re left with an aging quarterback tired of answering questions about his twilight.

“You could ask,” Manning said Wednesday during a round of questions about his health and diminished ability. “Once again, to talk about myself puts me in an uncomfortable position. I’m sure our trainer would be willing to do an open interview on the health of me and the entire team. Good luck getting that interview.

“Actually, I feel pretty good.”

Manning will need to play pretty good this week.

For all the talk about Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers against a Broncos defense that may be the best in the NFL, this could be the matchup that matters. An aging Manning, with a slowed release and slower fastball, must survive a Packers defense that ranks first in the NFL with 16.8 points allowed per game and second with 23 sacks.

Even in his prime, Manning was susceptible to the pass rush. That makes him no different than any other quarterback, Matthews noted. But Manning isn’t in his prime. Pressure him this week, and things could get ugly on national television.

“Try to get him off his spot,” Matthews said. “We know Peyton is the type of player who, if he has time to sit in the pocket, he’s going to pick you apart. I think it puts extra emphasis on the fact that, him not taking many hits and sacks, but at the same time we need to do a good job of getting him off the spot. Getting him moving his feet, and hopefully we can take advantage of a few throws. That’s obviously a point of emphasis this week, and hopefully that comes to be.”

In his mind, Matthews said, he isn’t looking at Manning any differently than in the past. It’s dangerous to underestimate him, of course. Manning will always command respect.

Even at his age, with his medical history, he can find unconventional ways to win a game.

“I don’t think you can outthink him,” cornerback Casey Hayward said.

Around the Packers’ locker room, defensive players referred to Manning in reverent tones. Many of them grew up watching the quarterback in Indianapolis, where he led the Colts to two Super Bowls, winning one. They realize Manning’s stature in the game’s history is larger than life, something legendary.

They’re also aware of Manning’s struggles.

“I’m sure he wishes he had some throws back,” Matthews said. “And I’m sure he wishes he had more touchdowns and less interceptions, but that’s part of the deal. We’ve all had our ups and downs in our career, and I know a lot of people want to give him a hard time. Especially 39 (years old), and perhaps in his final year, final two years, whatever it may be.

“You put on the tape, there’s some impressive throws that he possesses, and he’s made in critical parts of the game. I think a lot of people want to focus on that.”

Manning has had to change his weekly routine to stay fresh for Sundays. He has adapted to his age, Manning said, with regular “body maintenance” that was unnecessary as a younger player. He also takes fewer reps through the week. Manning no longer practices on Wednesdays, though he did this week with the Broncos coming off their bye.

The extra rest should help, physically and mentally. Which is why the Packers won’t expect anything less than Manning’s best, even if his best isn’t what it used to be.

“He’s capable of doing anything and everything that he’s done in the past,” safety Micah Hyde said. “He’s just like any other quarterback – if you get pressure off him, make him throw off his back foot, you can get turnovers off of him. At the same time, if he’s on his A game and the O line is blocking for him, and the receivers are breaking tackles and things like that, he can look like the greatest Peyton Manning. The best ball that he’s ever thrown in his life.

“We’re going to go into this game expecting Peyton Manning to play his A game.” and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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