Pat Bowlen owns the Denver Broncos, John Elway has a prominent role in the front office and John Fox coaches the players.
But the Broncos are, without a doubt, Peyton Manning’s team. The Broncos know it, Manning knows it and the Browns know it.
“He’s definitely a leader and guys follow him,” Browns cornerback Sheldon Brown said. “Peyton’s aura in the locker room, his work ethic and all that stuff, it’s second to none. It fuels the fire, and it rubs off on everyone.”
The Browns (5-9) face the daunting task of visiting Manning and the Broncos (11-3) at 4:05 p.m. today.
Although their playoff hopes have been dashed, the Browns are hoping to bounce back from their 38-21 loss to the Washington Redskins with a strong showing in front of owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner in their second-to-last audition of the season. The Broncos, meanwhile, are aiming to extend their winning streak to 10 games and secure the AFC’s No. 2 playoff seed and a first-round bye.
The Browns know they must be at their best because Manning rarely falters, even after sitting out last season and undergoing four neck surgeries. Manning, 36, left the Indianapolis Colts, where he had been the face of the franchise since 1998 and won a Super Bowl in 2007, and signed a five-year, $96 million contract with the Broncos in March.
Now Manning, a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is a candidate to become the NFL’s Most Valuable Player. He has completed 347-of-511 passes (67.9 percent) for 4,016 yards and 31 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. His passer rating is 103.5.
“Anytime a guy that’s been that successful in this league, when he sits out a year, it just motivates him even more,” Browns middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “The last thing he needed was some fuel to the fire. Look at [Minnesota Vikings running back] Adrian Peterson. He sat out a year [with an injured knee], told everyone he’ll be back and look at the season he’s having. When you reach that stardom, that level, you’ll do whatever you can to get to that level, plus some. So both of those guys are having remarkable seasons. With Peyton, I don’t think anyone doubted he would be having the season he’s having.”
When Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden played at Oklahoma State University, he got to know Manning. Weeden twice served as a youth football camp counselor at the Manning Passing Academy at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La. He wasn’t surprised by Manning’s successful comeback.
“He’s a football nut,” Weeden said. “He’s so wrapped up. The way he prepares is second to none. The way he’s overcome that, there aren’t many guys who would. The way he’s playing, a lot of people are putting him in MVP talks and rightfully so.”
Manning doesn’t throw with the same velocity he once did, but he’s still getting the job done. He has a knack for placing passes exactly where they need to be at the right time.
“He’s putting the ball on the money, and he’s delivering it pretty much all over the field,” Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron said. “His timing looks pretty much like it’s always looked. I wish it had diminished greatly, but it hasn’t.”
The other attribute that separates Manning is his uncanny ability for reading defenses and calling plays at the line of scrimmage. He seems to know where defenders will move before the play unfolds.
“He watches as much film as all the coaches, he is involved in the game planning and he actually runs the protection,” Jackson said. “He actually does a check-with-me offense the majority of the time. What that means is based on what the pre-snap read is from the defense, he puts the offense in the best play possible, and it’s usually the correct play, nine times out of 10. It takes a smart man and a talented man to be able to be successful that way. He’s had one of those productive, hall of fame careers as a quarterback. Everyone knows he’s good. So every defensive coordinator comes up with the best plan possible to stop him.”
Stopping Manning might be virtually impossible, but the key to limiting him lies in a defense’s ability to disguise coverages and blitzes.
“If you can just try to make him read your coverage once he gets the snap in his hands, he’s plenty good enough,” Jauron said. “If you give him all kinds of indications prior to the snap, then he’s even better than that. That’s what people try to do. They are trying to hide what they are doing until he gets the ball in his hand, until the ball is snapped, and then you play and it’s on from there.”
Manning is 5-0 against the Browns, though his statistics against them — only two touchdowns and six interceptions — have been atypical. The Browns have fallen to the Broncos in their past nine meetings and haven’t prevailed against them since 1990.
Of course, this will be the first time the Browns have faced Manning as a member of the Broncos. Many of their young players grew up watching him dominate with the Colts.
“I always liked his competitive attitude because even when they’re leading, he’s still trying to put up points,” nickel cornerback Buster Skrine said.
The Browns, however, won’t enjoy being victimized by Manning’s relentless nature. A week after Redskins rookie quarterback Kirk Cousins shredded the Browns for 329 yards and two touchdowns, they’re desperate for redemption.
“I like our chances,” Jackson said. “We’re going to Denver to get a win. I know we’re facing Peyton. He’s great. There’s a lot of great players in this league, and we’re going to do what we’ve got to do come Sunday.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com.browns.abj.