Peyton Manning's return to the NFL after a one-year injury hiatus has gone as well as, if not better than, expected. There have been a few hiccups along the way, which was to be expected, but things are slowly getting back to normal for the four-time NFL MVP.
The first four weeks were nothing more than a warm-up act, though. The real battle begins on Sunday, as Manning will lead his new Denver Broncos teammates against an old foe, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
In a season that has been filled with must-see matchups, Manning vs. Brady is the greatest trump card out there.
As Mark Kiszla of the Denver Post wrote, this is a quarterback matchup that transcends football. It is about the two best players at the position of this era.
Manning and Brady are the quarterbacks that have defined a generation. They made 300-yard passing games and 65 percent completion rates the gold standard, rather than rare feats. Their rivalry in classic games between Indianapolis and New England could fill a chapter of storied NFL history.
This is hardly the first time the Broncos will be challenged this season, despite my insistence that September was a warm-up act. They had a brutal stretch where they played Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Houston before catching a break with Oakland last week.
All of those games allowed Manning to get his feet wet and get used to the speed and physicality of the game after so much time away. Now, the Broncos have a much greater sense of who they are as a team and Manning as a quarterback.
With so many new parts and wrinkles to the offense, it was always going to take time getting used to things.
But now Manning looks comfortable. He had easily his best game of the season against, admittedly, an overwhelmed and uninspired Raiders team last week. But ignore the opponent and focus on the throws; Manning was doing all the things he used to.
Balls in the middle of the field were thrown with precision and accuracy. His arm strength on throws down the field and to the outside was as good as it has been all season.
That was against Oakland and Carson Palmer, though. Seeing Brady and the Patriots on the other side of the field is going to get the competitive juices going in Manning like we have yet to see.
Manning is a smart player, of course, but he is also an emotional one, looking to make a statement whenever he can. The Patriots are, for better or worse, depending on your perspective, the marquee franchise in the NFL today, and Brady is still one of the three biggest stars in the sport.
This is the game that Manning wants to win above all else, at least in the regular season. He will get his chance on Sunday afternoon.
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