On Saturday January 8 2011, Peyton Manning took to the field in what would be his last game (a 17-16 Wild Card loss to the New York Jets) before undergoing neck surgery. On Sunday – 611 days after that January playoff game – he returns to the field. His jersey and support cast may be different, but expectations remain the same: just win!
The Pittsburgh Steelers travel to Denver to face Manning and the Broncos in the first Sunday Night Football game of the season. The primetime showdown will be the gem of this weekend’s kickoff fixtures. All eyes will be on Manning as he attempts to guide his new teammates first to victory over the Steelers and then onwards to the postseason and, perhaps, even a Super Bowl.
After last year’s ‘miracle’ season, fans in the Mile High City are hoping for success, but praying for stability. A year of Tim Tebow was enough to make even the staunchest fan – and certainly John Elway – a little weak at the knees.
Manning certainly has the numbers to bring stability to any organization. Over the course of 13 regular seasons, the 1998 No. 1 draft pick has thrown for 54,828 yards, which translates to more than 4,000 yards each season and 263.6 yards per game. He’s thrown 399 touchdowns, which is close to two per game and better than 30 per season. His career completion rating is 65 percent,
His all-time career regular season win/loss record stands at 141-67, while his Indianapolis Colts made the playoffs in 11 of his 13 active seasons. His long list of accolades includes 11 Pro Bowl selections, five first-team All-Pro nods, four league MVP awards and one Vince Lombardi trophy.
In 2010, Manning attempted 679 passes, 450 of which were completed. Both numbers were career highs for the veteran who has rarely looked tired during his NFL days. In fact, before the neck surgery, Manning was the NFL’s ironman, having played in 208 straight games since being drafted.
Sunday night’s clash will be the ultimate test for the comebacker.
Pittsburgh is renowned for its pass rush. In 2011 the team sacked the opposing quarterback 35 times, with linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley tallying nine apiece. Fortunately for Manning, Harrison is questionable for Sunday’s game.
Pittsburgh ranked No. 1 in the NFL in pass defense and opponents’ points scored, and were second in run defense. Points will therefore be at a premium for Manning and the Broncos, and they can expect a tough challenge from the off.
For much of 2011, Denver’s defense carried the team. Despite ranking in the middle to bottom of most defensive categories, the Broncos managed to stay in games whilst its offense spluttered thanks to some tough play from the likes of CB Champ Bailey, DE Elvis Dumervil (9.5 sacks), Brian Dawkins and rookie LB Von Miller, who was selected to the Pro Bowl on the back of 11.5 sacks.
That unit will be up against a Pittsburgh offense that gave up 42 sacks and 15 interceptions last campaign. Head coach Mike Tomlin and new offensive coordinator Todd Haley will be looking for fewer mistakes by returning to the running game that has been a staple of solid Steeler football for decades. With RB Rashard Mendenhall still on the mend and backup Isaac Redman also hobbled, running the ball might have to play second fiddle for the time being though.
Denver enters the game as narrow (-2) favorites but the short odds are a clear indication that Manning’s return is very much the unknown factor. How will the new Bronco cope in his first game in nearly two years? How will his neck hold up if that awesome Pittsburgh pass rush gets to him? And how quickly will he be able to sync with his new teammates?
If we see the Manning of old, Denver fans will truly have something to cheer about. If the new Manning is slowed by injury, it might take some time for him to return to form. Either way, a win for the Steelers on Sunday night would not be considered that much of an upset. Would it?
Week 1 Schedule
Thursday: Dallas 24-17 NY Giants
Sunday: (1 PM ET) Indianapolis @ Chicago | Philadelphia @ Cleveland | St. Louis @ Detroit | Miami @ Houston | Atlanta @ Kansas City | Jacksonville @ Minnesota | Washington @ New Orleans | Buffalo @ NY Jets | New England @ Tennessee; (4:25 PM ET) Seattle @ Arizona | San Francisco @ Green Bay | Carolina @ Tampa Bay; (8:20 PM ET) Pittsburgh @ Denver
Monday: (7 PM ET) Cincinnati @ Baltimore; (10:15 PM ET) San Diego @ Oakland