Depending on your perspective, this is Broncos week, or maybe Peyton Manning week, but the specific moniker doesn’t much matter because the situation is the same. Always the same.
The Chiefs have played against Manning six times since he joined the Broncos and eight times before that with the Colts. Every time, they study hard and practice hard and build up a pro athlete’s confidence during the week. They convince themselves.
This is their time, this is their moment, because they saw that one thing on film, or maybe they remember that other thing Manning did to beat them last time, and that’s fixed now, so doggone it, this is their chance.
And every time, with only one exception over 17 years — what were you doing on Halloween 2004? — the Chiefs have lost. Again. Heck, even the one time the Chiefs won, Manning’s team scored 35 points.
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“We’re always optimistic when we play against Peyton,” said Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson, who has played in six of the losses. “It’s always been pretty close. I can say that. But we’ve always fallen short.”
The part about it always being close is true-ish. Seven of the 13 losses have been within eight points. Last year, in the game at Mile High, the Chiefs needed a conversion on fourth-and-goal for a chance at overtime or the win with a two-point conversion. There have been blowouts, too, perhaps most notably a 38-3 loss in the last game of that miserable 2012 season.
But history is not subtle here. The Chiefs are 1-13 against Manning and 125-129 against everyone else since his rookie year. Manning wins 93 percent of his games against the Chiefs and 68 percent against everyone else. Manning is one of the NFL’s greatest quarterbacks, but he has always held a particular mastery over the Chiefs.
The Chiefs have played Manning with six different coaches. They have played Manning when he was young and now when he is old. They have played him when he was just a hotshot draft pick finding his way, and they have played him in games where he was in half the commercials.
So, anyway, all that said, it would take heck of a leap or a heck of an idiot to say that this — finally — is the moment when the Chiefs get over their Peyton problem.
Well, the rest of this column is about such a leap, and written by such an idiot. An idiot, it should be said, who wrote something very similar last November.
I was wrong then, obviously, and it may be true that I’m wrong again. Won’t be the last time.
But this sure feels like the Chiefs’ time. This sure feels like the moment they can stand tall and beat him, finally, like a kid on the playground who rises up against the bully.
Some of this is about the Chiefs. A lot of it, really. Time will tell, but this is the best Chiefs team to play Manning since the 2003 playoffs. Better than the 2013 and 2010 teams that benefited from easy schedules and lost wild-card playoff games, and better than the 2006 team that needed the equivalent of a four-team parlay to hit on the last week of the season to sneak into the playoffs.
The Chiefs have not had a full set of skill position playmakers like this in quite some time, and the offensive line held up admirably, if not staunchly, against a terrific front seven last weekend in Houston.
More importantly in facing Manning, the Chiefs have what might be their most complete defense in years. Justin Houston is at the height of his powers, Johnson is recovered from that Achilles injury and the defensive line caused a lot of problems. The Chiefs will miss Sean Smith in the secondary, for sure, but Marcus Peters played well in his NFL debut.
A lot of this is about the Broncos, too. And Manning, specifically. Father Time is undefeated, they say. And Manning is too smart and the Broncos’ defense too talented for a free fall — like, say, the Tigers this year in the American League Central — but there are too many signs of slippage to think the future will be the same as the past.
For instance, since the last time the Chiefs saw Manning, he’s thrown four touchdowns and six interceptions with a 75.3 passer rating in six games.
Manning has played through physical limitations since his neck surgeries and time in Denver, but there are subtle signs of it catching up. Diminished arm strength means he often has to throw the ball quicker to get it to the same spot, which means more guesswork with pre-snap reads.
Manning may very well be the best quarterback in NFL history at both knowing and dictating what a defense does against him, but he is a man, not a wizard, and the missed guesses are coming a little more frequently.
There were at least three such instances in what turned out to be a 19-13 win over the Ravens last week.
In the first quarter, Manning saw Demaryius Thomas break open on a crossing route about 15 yards down the field. It was in that space between the linebackers and secondary, where great quarterbacks often make their living. On the replay, you can see that Manning anticipated linebacker C.J. Mosley getting beat on Thomas’ break inside. But what he didn’t see was linebacker Daryl Smith reading the play and jumping the pass. The ball never got to Thomas.
Manning made his worst read and pass in the third quarter, when he either missed or misjudged a cornerback blitz by Kyle Arrington. Manning had to rush his throw to Jordan Norwood and make it off his back leg. The ball hung in the air, giving Jimmy Smith enough time to break off his man, jump the throw and return the interception for a touchdown.
The Ravens had another chance for a pick-six two drives later. Manning was throwing a short, simple pass to Emmanuel Sanders but must not have seen Daryl Smith sitting in the same part of the field. Smith anticipated the throw and stepped in front of Sanders. The ball hit his hands, and if it had been intercepted it would’ve been an easy and game-changing touchdown.
There were other problems the Chiefs saw on film this week. At least twice, Manning’s fading arm strength cost the Broncos yards or points.
In the first quarter, the Broncos ran a play-action pass where Manning was asked to throw down the field while running to his left. This is a bizarre ask from new coach Gary Kubiak, since Manning moves like he’s wearing cement shoes. It’s a throw that relies heavily on arm strength, and Manning’s throw died 5 yards in front of his intended (and open) receiver.
The arm strength also shows up on deep balls. This has been a constant area of concern for Manning since he joined the Broncos, and he missed a chance at a touchdown when he floated a ball out of the reach of Sanders, who had the cornerback beat by a few steps. Manning had some pressure from a blitz, which may have forced him to throw a split-second too soon, but either way this is a throw he’s completed many times throughout his career.
Manning is too smart, and too good, to give the Chiefs the same looks Thursday. He also made plenty of good throws against the Ravens. But there are certain truths that by now are obvious. He can’t make all the throws, for one. The out route on the opposite hash mark is not even an option, and the same can be said for throws on the move. Defenses can cheat up a bit, knowing it’s harder for Manning to beat them deep.
Manning and Kubiak will continue to learn each other, but there are clues from the Ravens game that the Chiefs will likely use. The Ravens had their best success against Manning when sending pressure, instead of dropping more guys into coverage.
The Broncos’ offensive line — as much of a makeshift unit as the Chiefs’ — had trouble picking up stunts and blitzes, something Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton will almost certainly try to exploit.
One benefit of the Chiefs’ rotten record against Manning is that their attention will be more on his success than his recent struggles. Thursday night games can be tricky, but the Chiefs should benefit from a rocking Arrowhead Stadium and a coaching staff that has likely been saving some special plays or schemes.
Everything is there for the Chiefs to win, in other words. Finally.
And, heck, if it doesn’t play out that way, maybe I’ll write this column again in November. Eventually, I’ll be right.