FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- He had been here at Gillette Stadium with other people at other times. That thought had to sneak into Peyton Manning’s head Sunday afternoon and into the night. He couldn’t keep it out, no matter how he tried.
He had been at Gillette Stadium for five games in 14 years, two of them playoff games, in his Indianapolis Colts uniform. (Don’t think about it.) He had dressed in the same visiting locker room. (Don’t.) He had clacked down the same concrete hallway in his cleats, turned hard right and run onto that same field, past those fake minutemen and their fake muskets and made some serious history. (Don’t)
He wasn’t making history now.
“I played here many times,” the 36-year-old quarterback said after he and his new team, the Denver Broncos, lost 31-21, to the New England Patriots. “It’s definitely different [this time], there’s no question.”
See that right sideline? He had thrown the ball right there with the Colts to Marvin Harrison a bunch of times. Money. See that post route? That was Reggie Wayne. Reggie could go and get it. Tight end Dallas Clark, of course, worked the middle and Edgerrin James pumped out the tough yards and Tony Dungy, well, Tony Dungy always was over there, right on the same page.
This was Game 5 of Manning’s new and different football life. Back from missing a full season with two, maybe three neck surgeries, exiled from the Colts in a financial shuffle, he was trying his best to recreate his old football life with new people. How do you do that? How do you hurry familiarity? How does the new No. 88, Demaryius Thomas become as reliable as the old No. 88, Harrison? Manning and Harrison worked together for 11 years. One said “Bless you” before the other one coughed. How long does that take?
Those Colts teams were built around Manning, built for him, built to enhance his strengths, cover his weaknesses. That approach led to a 2006 Super Bowl championship, then a return to the game in 2009. Manning was MVP four times, named the NFL Player of the Decade for the 2000s. Is there a chance the Broncos could provide anything close to the same situation for him? Could they possibly do it this year?
“Obviously the expectation level’s going to go up, but that’s what we want it to be, too,” executive vice president of football operations John Elway declared when the Broncos signed Manning to a five-year, $96 million contract on March 20. “We’re not selling tickets to New Orleans (site of Super Bowl XLVII). … This guarantees nothing. It guarantees the chance to work hard and that’s what we’re going to do.”
The game with the Patriots was supposed to be a chance to see how well the work has progressed. The Broncos were 2-2 when they hit Gillette, both losses to unbeaten teams, the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans. Both games had followed the same pattern. The Broncos fell behind early, then tried hurried and late comebacks that fell short. The plan was to end that with the Patriots, to come out with some new looks, get a quick jump, go from there.
“We knew coming in it was going to be important for us to be efficient with our possessions and get touchdowns and not field goals and to convert on third downs,” Manning said. “We had a couple of chances in the first half to score some more points … anytime you’re playing against a good football team you have to convert opportunities when they present themselves and we had some chances and we just didn’t do it overall consistently today.”
The chance to get that quick jump was a 43-yard bomb, Manning to Thomas to the New England 10-yard line on the first drive of the day. Perfect. Just like Manning to Harrison. God bless you. The euphoria lasted no more than a second as Patriots cornerback Sterling Moore karate-chopped the ball loose from Thomas’ hand, picked it up on the three and returned it to the 17. By the end of the quarter, the Patriots were ahead, 7-0. By the half, the score was 17-7. By the end of the third quarter it was 31-7.
The Patriots, ah, played like the team the team Manning wanted the Broncos to be. This was a team that had been built around quarterback Tom Brady through the years, built for quarterback Tom Brady. He controlled the pace with a no-huddle, hurry-up tempo faster than any no-huddle, hurry-up Manning ever ran. A strong running game, working against a pass-leery Broncos defense filled with defensive backs, pounded out 251 yards. Wes Welker caught 13 passes from Brady, no problem, easy as if they were playing catch in the park. Tight end Rob Gronkowski did the good work in the middle. The offense converted third downs with regularity, piled up a team record 35 before the day ended.
The Patriots’ effort was a picture to hang on the locker room wall for inspiration.
“Nothing they did was a surprise,” Broncos coach John Fox said. “Although it looked like it was. We prepared for all this. It didn’t translate to the field. They’ve been doing this for a long time. They have a good, solid group together doing it. They communicate very well. Obviously they communicated better than we did.”
The Patriots did make some mistakes in the fourth quarter. Manning did mount yet another late and hurried comeback. The Broncos also made some mistakes. The late and hurried comeback fell short again. Manning did finish with better individual numbers than Brady -- 31-for-44 passing for 345 yards and three touchdowns to Brady’s 23-for-31, 223 yards and one touchdown. Brady did finish with the ninth win out of 14 games in their individual matchup.
That was more important.
“They got the lead and never lost it and, once again, we did continue to fight and compete in the second half,” Manning said. “Which I do think we can build on and have it help us win a game at some point in an early situation if it happens again, but it’s still not good enough. Here we are, 2-3.”
Here was Gillette Stadium. Here was different.