Manning's Diminishing Arm Strength Exposed by Wind
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The best thing about last nights game? After a full week of debate based largely on unsubstantiated opinion, we finally had some facts to, at least for one night, settle the Brady/Manning debate.
Like this one. Peyton Manning was 9/18 for 75 yards, a touchdown and an interception while throwing into the wind. On the other side, Tom Brady was completed a cool 17-23 for 201 yards and 2 touchdowns.
It's been a well-kept secret in the NFL this year, but Peyton doesn't have the same arm strength he had before the string of neck surgeries that pushed him out of Indianapolis. It's gone largely unnoticed throughout Manning's season-long assault on the record books because the quarterback has done a masterful job making up for that weakness with touch and timing.
As I wrote last week, Manning's success this year has come largely from a quick-striking, short passing game. The Bronco's arsenal of weapons allows Denver to spread opposing defenses, creating mismatches that Manning can quickly exploit while allowing great run-after-the-catch players like Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker the opportunites to turn short passes into big plays.
Simply put, Manning didn't have the arm strength to consistently drive the football through the wind last night. A quick glance at the stat sheet proves it. Despite a monster group of receivers (even without Julius Thomas) facing a banged up Patriots secondary, Manning's longest passing play to a receiver or tight end only went for 17 yards. Several of Manning's throws to the sideline noticeably fluttered in the air before falling harmlessly incomplete; throws that Manning hits in perfect conditions 100 out of 100 times.
Manning did put together one masterful drive into the wind late to tie the game, but even that featured a bad interception that was waved off due to a questionable penalty. Take away that one drive, on which Manning went 5-7 for 53 yards and a TD, and his stats facing the wind drop to a dismal 4-11 for 22 yards and a pick.
With this in mind, it certainly seems plausible that the wind factor played a heavy factor in Denver's decision to run 48 times. The Patriots played nickel packages all night, using physical, press-man coverage to disrupt the timing of Denver's receivers. The strategy nominally has two weaknesses: it leaves you with lighter personnel against the run and leaves you vulnerable to getting beat over the top.
The Broncos took full advantage of the former, with Knowshon Moreno rushing for a whopping 224 yards and a touchdown, but they strategically chose to not attack the Patriots banged up secondary in the process. Even when Aqib Talib was forced to miss a few key plays late, leaving Kyle Arrington to check Demaryius Thomas and Marquice Cole on Welker, Manning opted to hand off rather than attack the mismatches.
Finally, Manning's struggles facing the wind likely influenced Bill Belichick's decision to take the wind rather than the ball in overtime. There were plenty of other factors playing into that decision (such as forcing the Broncs to drive the length of the field simply for a field goal), but it's unlikely that Belichick gives Manning a chance to drive for a touchdown and win the game if he feels like Manning can't make those throws into the wind. Essentially, Belichick dared Manning to beat him, and Peyton wasn't up to the task.
It's a legitimate issue and something to watch come playoff time. Of the conference's likely top 5 playoff teams, only Indianapolis plays in a dome. New England, Denver, Kansas City and Cincinnati all could have nasty conditions outside come January, let alone the Super Bowl, which will be in the cold and wind of New Jersey's MetLife Stadium. Manning is still a great player and always a threat, but his diminishing arm strength could allow weather to become the great equalizer come playoff time.