ATLANTA — Matt Ryan did his best not to rile up Peyton Manning.
No need to give No. 18 any bulletin-board material.
“I think he was drafted when I was in ...,” Ryan said, catching himself. “I don’t want to make him sound TOO old.”
For the record, Ryan was in seventh grade when Manning was the top overall pick in 1998. Now, two elite quarterbacks from different football generations will be on the same field, facing off in a most intriguing matchup tonight.
There’s Ryan, on the cusp of establishing himself as one of the best at his position for the Atlanta Falcons (1-0). There’s Manning, his legacy secure but still with something to prove as he jump-starts his career for the Denver Broncos (1-0).
“I remember watching him at Tennessee. Unbelievably talented,” Ryan said. “Then when he got into the NFL, he was carving people up and has been doing it for a long time. It’s fun to play against the very best, and he’s obviously one of the best quarterbacks of all time.”
After four neck surgeries wiped out his final season with the Indianapolis Colts, Manning signed with the Broncos intent on showing he wasn’t washed up at age 36.
One week into this new adventure, he’s largely put aside any doubts. With a performance reminiscent of his glory days, the four-time MVP guided Denver’s hurry-up offense with his usual skill, precision and arm gyrations, leading the Broncos to a 31-19 win over Pittsburgh in the season opener.
“From what I saw, it looked the Peyton I remember from Indianapolis,” Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson said. “He was throwing the ball all over the place, directing the offense, reading the defense and putting his team in the best possible situation to execute. That’s what Peyton Manning does.”
Led by Ryan, the Falcons looked equally impressive in their first game, blowing out the Chiefs 40-24 in Kansas City. New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter seemed intent on weaning Atlanta off its reliance on a power running game so the quarterback could take advantage of his many skills and myriad weapons.
In all, the Falcons passed the ball 31 times and handed it off only 20.
That was at odds with Atlanta coach Mike Smith’s philosophy the last four seasons. He always put an emphasis on controlling the line of scrimmage and the clock, but that’s not necessarily a winning formula against Manning. The Steelers dominated time of possession — and look how much good it did them.
That said, don’t expect the Falcons to totally abandon Michael Turner and the running game.
“It’s become more of a passing league,” center Todd McClure said. But, he quickly added, “There’s going to be games this season where we have to run it down people’s throat or, if we get up early, we’re going to have to pound it to eat up some clock. We’ve got the same guys in this locker room we had when we were tops in the league in rushing. There’s no reason we can’t do it now.”
Despite a most successful debut in the Mile High City, Manning keeps insisting that he’s still learning the ropes with a new team and it may take all year to truly find his comfort zone.
The Broncos certainly like what they’ve seen so far, on and off the field.
“He challenges everyone in the building every day because of the standard he sets for himself,” offensive coordinator Mike McCoy said. “It’s great for the organization, the younger players, and a lot of the veterans. They think they’ve worked extremely hard, but then they see the way he is. He makes everyone better — coaches, players, the organization, everyone around him.”
In a sense, that’s what Ryan does for the Falcons. No one worked harder during the offseason, all those long days of lifting weights and studying film spurred on by another playoff flop.
Over his first four seasons, the Falcons have made three trips to the playoffs. Each time, they were one-and-done, including an embarrassing 24-2 loss to the New York Giants last January.
“It’s one of those things where you’ve got to use it as motivation in the right way,” Ryan said. “That’s what I’ve tried to do. It’s certainly difficult, no question, but when you put it behind you and move on and start preparing for the next season, that’s the only way I’ve found you can approach it. You just have to get back to work and start working for the next goal.”
While Ryan could certainly make a huge statement in this prime-time game, his teammates don’t expect him to turn this into a personal duel with Manning.
“To be honest, I don’t know if (Ryan) really looks at it that way,” McClure said. “He’s so focused on going out there and playing at a high level. He’s not too worried about the other quarterback and trying to outdo him. He’s just worried about himself and trying to score more points.”
The Falcons will likely have to score a lot of points, especially with their secondary taking a major blow in Week 1. Cornerback Brent Grimes went down with a season-ending Achilles injury, ruining the plan to have three top cornerbacks on the field at the same time largely for games like this.
Atlanta still has Robinson and Asante Samuel, but it may not be enough against Manning.
The old guy looks like he’s still got it.
“Every QB watches him,” Ryan said. “You have to be your own player. But in terms of watching him at the line of scrimmage, what he’s done historically for a long time, you try to bring some of that into what we’ve done in the no-huddle. Certainly, I think everybody aspires to be where he is.”
When asked how he would defend Manning, Ryan laughed.
“Not my job,” he said. “That’s the great part of playing quarterback. I don’t ever have to go on the field against him.”