Peyton Manning might be the smartest quarterback to ever play the game.
In an era of more coaching and less autonomy for quarterbacks, he’s a throwback, basically calling the game from the line of scrimmage. Once he breaks the huddle, he goes to work. He diagnoses the defense and adjusts the call to attack the weak spot.
The defense’s job is to disguise its scheme as long as possible to introduce doubt into his mind.
“If you can make him read your coverage once he gets the snap in his hands, he’s plenty good enough,” Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron said. “If you give him all kinds of indications prior to the snap, then he’s even better than that.”
Manning is in his first season in Denver after 14 with Indianapolis. Cornerback Sheldon Brown is in his 11th NFL season and ranked Manning and New England’s Tom Brady as the best he’s faced.
Is there any way to disguise coverage against Manning?
“No,” Brown said. “He understands the game, he understands concepts. He knows in cover-2 the middle of the field’s open. He knows cover-3 you want to go outside.
“At the end of the day you need to get set and be ready to do your job, because you don’t know when he’s coming to your guy, which could be any given play.”
Brown is the wise elder on a young defense.
The Browns will start four defenders in their first or second year, and another four or five will come off the bench.
Brown had a simple, if somewhat deflating, message for them.
“You’re going to be in great coverage and the receiver’s going to catch the ball,” he said. “Just get him on the ground, line up and play again.”
Manning, 36, missed all of 2011 with the Colts following multiple neck surgeries. The Broncos signed him despite not knowing if his arm would recover enough, and their faith was rewarded.
He’s fourth in the NFL with a 103.5 rating, third with a 67.9 completion percentage, third with 31 touchdowns, sixth with 4,016 yards and second with seven 300-yard games. The Broncos are 11-3, clinched the AFC West title, have won nine straight and are a favorite to make the Super Bowl.
The Broncos revamped their offense after the Tim Tebow experiment and are second in the league with 29.2 points per game. They’ve scored 30 points in all but three games, and all 11 wins were by seven points or more.
“I’m sure with Peyton running the offense there’s some synergy there,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “Good quarterbacks make everybody around them better.”
Manning never threw the prettiest ball in the league, but he could reach every spot on the field and was deadly accurate. There was a disagreement within the Cleveland locker room as to whether Manning’s lost some zip on his throws, but everyone concurred it doesn’t matter.
“He’s obviously lost some velocity on his ball, but he worked his tail off to come back,” Browns linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “It’s just a veteran guy adjusting to the game. That’s why this game is played above the shoulders more so than with your legs or physically what you can do.”
“I think he threw a (51-yard) touchdown pass last week, right?” Brown said. “I’d probably say it’s pretty good. And if you think differently, then you’re fooling yourself.”
Brown doesn’t view the matchup as a chance to match wits with Manning. He needs to take care of his side of the field and trust his teammates. But he believes rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden can benefit from being on the same field.
“It’s great for Brandon to see a guy like this operate,” Brown said.
Weeden worked as a counselor at the Manning quarterbacks camp and wasn’t surprised he returned to form.
“If there’s one guy that can overcome what he’s been able to overcome, it’s that guy,” Weeden said. “He’s working with 10- and 12-year-olds and you’d think he was teaching them to go play for the Super Bowl. He’s a football nut.
“The way he prepares is second to none. He’s had a great year.”
The pre-snap gyrations are unique to Manning, and the Browns realize many are dummy signals. But the reading of the defense and tweaking of the play are real, and part of what makes Manning special.
“I don’t think there’s many guys in this league (that can do that),” Weeden said. “He’s known for calling his own shots at the line of scrimmage and they give him free reign to do that.
“I’m not going to sit here and try to say that I’m near as smart as Peyton Manning. He’s one of the best that will ever play this game.”
Manning is the NFL’s only four-time MVP and a top candidate to win No. 5, along with comeback player of the year.
He’s second to Brett Favre in wins with 152, in Week 1 became the fastest player to reach 400 passing touchdowns and holds the NFL record with 70 300-yard passing games.
The Browns, who rank 15th allowing 22.1 points per game, counter with a secondary that spent the week in upheaval.
Nickelback Dimitri Patterson was waived, strong safety T.J. Ward placed on IR and free safety Tashaun Gipson sidelined with a foot injury suffered Thursday. Buster Skrine returns to nickelback, Usama Young slides from free safety to strong and Eric Hagg goes from inactive to starting free safety.
“Don’t cheat, don’t try to jump routes,” Brown said of his advice to the youngsters. “He’s so good, when you start anticipating things he’ll go to the sideline and talk to his guys. So you really need just to play sound.”
The secondary will try to contain Manning and receivers Demaryius Thomas (1,210 yards) and Eric Decker (923) as the Browns try to rebound from a deflating loss to the Redskins. They no longer have the postseason as an incentive, but they have plenty to play for.
Wholesale changes in the front office and coaching staff are expected in the day or two after the season finale, and that creates uncertainty across the roster. A player’s film is his resume.
“I’m very aware of the situation,” Jackson said. “I’ve been down this path before. So the best advice I’d give a guy is whatever you’ve done to this point, give it all you’ve got for the next two weeks, see where the chips fall and deal with it when that time comes.”
A win over Manning and the Broncos would impress any set of eyes. A couple of keys to an upset are being physical with the receivers to disrupt the timing and creating pressure with the defensive line.
“We have a plan set up where we can do some different things we haven’t done in the past,” Jackson said. “The thing we have to do is understand the call that we’re in and just play the best in that call and the best of our abilities.
“He’s figured this league out and he’s been successful. But I like our chances. We’re going to Denver to get a win.”
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