At some point in every great athlete’s career, he or she must deal with the reality that the best days are in the past.
Peyton Manning has reached that point.
Aaron Rodgers isn’t there yet.
While some view Sunday’s game as a rare chance to compare and contrast two great quarterbacks at different points on their career arcs, the quarterbacks themselves prefer to focus on the task at hand: Green Bay vs. Denver, each looking to improve to 7-0.
Neither is blind to the fact, however, that they have always been judged as thoroughly and harshly as anyone when they take the field – with everything from age, to arm strength, to decision-making among the factors being evaluated.
“You’ve got to continue to play at a high level,” said Rodgers, now in his 11th season and, like Manning, still in search of his second Super Bowl ring. “If you’re an ascending player, you’ve got to stay on the rise. If you’re near the end, you’ve got to avoid being a descending player.”
Manning, now 39 and in his 18th season, has struggled mightily to avoid looking like a player in decline. For all his difficulties – when asked about his stat line of seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions, he quipped, “That’s not breaking news” – his team is still 6-0. With one more victory, Manning will match Brett Favre with the most regular-season wins for a starting quarterback at 186.
That Manning could do it against the team Favre won most of his games with is a mere coincidence – one the quarterback hasn’t had much time to dwell on.
“I don’t really get into what-ifs and hypotheticals,” Manning said.
This is hardly the time to do it.
Manning’s adjustment to new coach Gary Kubiak‘s offense has been ugly, filled with off-target throws, a few pick-6s and more than a few questions. The offense is ranked 29th.
It’s Denver’s top-ranked defense that’s winning games for the Broncos, but while the unit led by Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware hums along, many expect the Denver offense to look a bit different coming out of a bye week. If the Broncos can’t run the ball, logic says they should revert to a passing game that more resembles what Manning is comfortable in: shotgun looks, quick reads and quick slants, no more bootlegs or throwing on the run.
It would help if the line would block better, both for the 30th-ranked running game and to protect an immobile and fragile quarterback.
“We continue to, I don’t want to use the word ‘search,’ but some of the things we had going on personnel wise, we’ve become a little bit different football team – a three-wide and four-wide football team,” Kubiak said. “We’re battling through that.”
Green Bay, meanwhile, is 6-0 largely because the team’s star, Rodgers, is clicking along nicely.
He started the season with 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions to join Don Meredith and Manning as only the third QB to do that. Rodgers ranks either first or second in pretty much every important passing stat this season.
And yet, his offense has been at less than full strength because of injuries to receivers Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams. Last season, the Packers cracked the 35-point mark six times. This year, they’ve scored that many points just once. The Packers were heavily favored but didn’t shine in home wins against St. Louis or San Diego, which caused some muttering in Wisconsin. Naturally, the quarterback took some of the heat.
“We’re often in the crosshairs every Monday,” Rodgers said. “Whether it was a good game or a bad game. Pundits and experts have their opinions. It comes with the territory. We’re both 6-0. It’s tough to do. I know everyone’s excited about that, especially NBC.”
Cris Collinsworth, who will call the game for the network Sunday night, is among the many being asked to break down the struggles Manning is enduring in what is increasingly looking like his last season.
“Does he have Aaron’s arm? Not even close,” Collinsworth said. “But can he win a football game and win a championship with the way this team can play defense? Yeah, I think he can.”
While used to living under the microscope, Manning is also accustomed to being on one end of these marquee-quarterback meetings. While “Manning-Rodgers 2” opens the month of November – their only other meeting was a 34-14 Packers win over the Colts in 2008 – “Manning-Brady 17” will close it on Nov. 29.
After Denver’s end-of-month meeting against Tom Brady and New England, football fans will have a better idea if this is the end for Manning, or merely a production dip caused by a rocky experiment with a new coach. Rodgers, in his prime now but closer to the end of his career than the beginning, calls Manning, quite simply, “a legend.”
To him, this week’s game has no bearing on that.
“He’s done it for such a long time at a high level,” Rodgers said. “He’s been the standard for quarterbacks, and pretty soon he’s going to have just about all the records in our league, and that’s pretty impressive.”
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.