ENGLEWOOD • Ever since his three-interception first quarter at Atlanta in Week 2, Peyton Manning has assuaged any doubts about his comeback, any leftover concerns about his arm strength and remaining misgivings about his surgically repaired neck.
He’s thrown 165 passes without a pick, completing 103 of them for 1,221 yards and eight touchdowns since matching — interception-wise — the worst quarter of his 15-year career.
“I don’t know if he is way up on the list of my worries, to be quite honest with you,” coach John Fox said.
It’s Manning’s supporting cast that has to tighten things up, not just on offense, but on defense and special teams, heck, even on the sideline.
The Broncos (2-3) have lost to three of the league’s biggest heavyweights, the unbeaten Falcons and Texans by six points each and at New England by 10 last weekend after Willis McGahee fumbled at the Patriots 11 with a chance to make it a three-point game late in the fourth quarter.
Denver has been dogged by too many turnovers, not enough third-down stops and a lack of takeaways.
There was even a coaching gaffe last week when the Broncos called for a Lance Ball carry on third-and-4 at midfield and then punted the ball back to Tom Brady, whose offense left Denver’s defenders looking bruised and battered.
Producing 89 snaps and 35 first downs, Brady’s breakneck offense kept Manning cooling his cleats on the sideline for long stretches, much like Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger did in the opener when he took an astonishing 41 out of 44 snaps at one point before the Broncos prevailed.
Manning recently gathered his teammates at practice and admonished them to “get your minds right.”
He’s done his part.
“I think he’s gotten a lot better,” Fox said. “I think he’s gotten more comfortable. His teammates have gotten more comfortable with him, and vice versa. Again, we’re adjusting, the coaches and coaching staff and implementing things that hopefully put us in the best opportunity to be successful. I think that’ll just get better. It’s kind of where we are as a football team right now. We’re going to get better.”
The Broncos have been unbelievable in the fourth quarter, outscoring opponents 58-6, an indication they believe they’re never out of it with Manning on their side.
But it’s been a case of too little, too late way too often.
“Fourth-quarter comebacks are great, but it usually means you’ve screwed up in the first three quarters,” Manning said. “The nice thing would be to eliminate some of the misses early in the game and let’s kind of keep the game on the field, if you will, keep it a one-score game or have a lead. It’d be nice to have a lead in the fourth quarter and work on holding that.”
Then, those frenetic finishes won’t be so necessary and the Broncos would be able to unleash Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller, who helped seal wins over the Steelers and Raiders by teeing off on the quarterback.
“We love our chances when we turn it into a one-dimensional game with our pass rush,” linebacker Keith Brooking said.
The Broncos are focusing on ball security this week after receiver Demaryius Thomas had a huge fumble after a big pass play for the second straight week on Sunday and McGahee missed a wide-open fourth-down pass in the fourth quarter before coughing up the ball to kill Denver’s comeback hopes last week.
They’re fixated on playing better early, ball security, getting more takeaways and getting off the field on third down. If they do all these things Monday at San Diego, they’ll have a much better chance of reaching their bye at .500, tied atop the AFC West with the Chargers at 3-3.
Their treacherous early-season schedule lightens up after that, and they can start to forget the fumbles, stumbles and tumbles that have marked their first month and a-half.
“Just need to protect the ball better. That’s the simple and short of it,” Manning said. “We focused on ball security today. It’s a point of emphasis for us. It needs to start in practice and then carry over to the game as well. Certainly any time you’re turning the ball over, it’s not good, and then any time you turn it over in scoring position, it stings a little more. It’s something we’re addressing. I believe we will fix it.”
Manning made immediate adjustments after his three-interception first quarter at Atlanta on Sept. 17. He pored over the pictures on the bench and played the rest of that game and every one since then with much greater precision.
None of this is surprising to slot receiver Brandon Stokley, Manning’s security blanket, who spent four seasons with the four-time MVP in Indianapolis.
“I guess he had a tough first quarter there, and that was about it,” Stokley said. “You know, there’s going to be rocky points in the season for every player. I think the spotlight was just so much more on him than everybody else.”
Chargers coach Norv Turner certainly doesn’t see anything different about Manning, who missed all of last season after a nerve injury sapped his arm strength.
“He looks outstanding. He looks like Peyton to me,” Turner said. “Making great decisions, accurate, moving the ball, the ball’s going up and down the field, they’re outstanding in the red zone. Those are things that I think you’re looking for from your offensive team and your quarterback.”
What Manning and the Broncos are searching for is more cohesion.
“We’ve played well in spurts, but we’re looking for a bit more four-quarter consistency,” Manning said. “We’re certainly capable of that, but we have to go out and do it. We have to try and find a way to not get so far behind. We’ve shown the ability to come back and make it close, but we’d like to avoid getting into that hole.”
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