Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
During Sunday night's game in Denver, broadcaster Al Michaels likened Peyton Manning's debut with the Broncos to the first day of school.
As the clock ticked down and the 36-year-old took a knee to give Denver its first win of the Peyton Manning Era, Michaels said, "He's the most popular kid in class right now."
Manning's first day at Mile High was pretty much perfect. The cafeteria served pizza, there weren't any pop quizzes and his three-ring binder didn't fall apart. The former Indianapolis Colt was in complete control from start to finish.
The Steelers cooked up a clever game plan to limit Manning's effectiveness. For most of the night, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger moved his team at a snail's pace in an effort to keep the four-time MVP off the field, often waiting until one or two seconds were left on the play clock before taking the snap.
It didn't work.
Twenty-four minutes and 55 seconds was more than enough time for Manning to carve up the Pittsburgh defense. In that span, Manning connected on 19 of his 26 passing attempts for two touchdowns and 253 yards.
His first TD pass, a 71-yard completion to Demaryius Thomas that looked amazingly similar to the game-winner Tim Tebow threw in last year's playoffs (also to Thomas and also against Pittsburgh), was the 400th of Manning's career. Manning now ranks third on the NFL's career touchdown list, needing just 19 scores to tie Dan Marino for second all-time.
Manning had been perched atop fantasy football's quarterback hierarchy for the better part of a decade, but then injuries reared their ugly head, causing the once-great quarterback to miss the entire 2011 season.
Peyton's three neck surgeries were clearly on the minds of fantasy owners this year on draft day. In one of the leagues I play in, Manning was the eighth quarterback taken. In another, he was ninth.
On Sunday, Manning tied with Mark Sanchez for sixth in points scored among fantasy quarterbacks behind Matt Ryan, Tony Romo (who played on Wednesday), Robert Griffin III, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. Certainly Sanchez and RG3 won't be able to perform like this on a weekly basis so you could probably make the case that Peyton is a top-five fantasy quarterback, right?
Not necessarily. Michael Vick and Matthew Stafford weren't themselves in Week 1 and Tom Brady barely had to do anything Sunday with New England leading by 20 and Stevan Ridley taking control of the running game. Peyton's brother Eli should be in for a better week next Sunday against the Buccaneers and Cam Newton should be able to get back on track in Week 2 versus a porous Saints secondary.
So where exactly does that leave us with Peyton? Is Manning ready to re-join the fantasy pantheon or should he take a number and wait in line with the rest of the league's "not quite elite" quarterbacks?
At this point, it's tough to tell. While 253 passing yards and two touchdowns doesn't jump off the page like it used to, there was still an awful lot to like about Peyton's performance on Sunday.
Yes, Ryan Clark and James Harrison weren't in the lineup for Pittsburgh. Even without them, the Steelers are one of the top defensive squads in the league and Manning still ate them up like a bowl of Cheerios.
Manning's football IQ is simply unmatched. Take Manning's touchdown pass to Thomas in the third quarter as an example. After not seeing the field in almost an hour (with the exception of a kneel-down before half-time), the Broncos had a 2nd-and-one on their own 29-yard line with just over five minutes remaining in the quarter. Manning immediately picked up the blitz from the right side, faked a hand-off to Willis McGahee and flipped to Thomas on the left for a huge touchdown.
His touchdown throw to Jacob Tamme, a teammate of Manning's in Indianapolis, was equally breathtaking. Again, he rolled out to the left before putting the ball in a place where only Tamme could reach it, as the Denver tight end slipped past Steelers safety Ryan Mundy for the 1-yard score.
Though it was Manning's lowest yardage total in a season opener since 2003, the chemistry he had with his receivers looked excellent. Manning completed five of his seven throws to Eric Decker and all five to Tamme, while also hitting Thomas on five tries out of seven. Manning was only sacked twice and he even ran for a first down on a 7-yard rush in the second quarter.
As great as Manning was during his years in Indianapolis, he developed a reputation as a bit of a gunslinger and was often turnover-prone (he was picked off 17 times during his final season with the Colts in 2010).
I didn't see that side of Manning on Sunday. He didn't force anything and he rarely went for the deep ball, mostly sticking to shorter routes and screens on the outside.
The only time I questioned Manning's decision-making Sunday was when he decided to throw the ball on 2nd-and-goal late in the game instead of keeping the clock moving by opting for a run.
Denver featured a balanced attack versus the Steelers, running the ball on 27 plays and throwing on 26. That approach probably won't lead to many 300-yard passing performances for Manning, but it should cut down on his interceptions and boost his overall passer rating.
While I'm not ready to declare Peyton a top-five fantasy quarterback just yet, I'd say he's knocking on the door of fantasy greatness. Perhaps he won't throw for as many touchdowns or rack up as many yards as he did in Indianapolis, but I think he'll avoid mistakes and that always has value in fantasy (just ask Stafford owners). So does consistency and Peyton has that in spades.
I'd say it was a pretty good first day of school. Next Monday, the Broncos take a field trip to Atlanta to take on the Falcons. Better pack a lunch.
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