Breaking down Peyton Manning's performances for the Denver Broncos into three stages puts one in mind of Sergio Leone's masterful and epic conclusion to his dollars trilogy, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
That represents the three stages Manning has had to navigate to complete what has been a successful return to the gridiron, following a year away from the game.
Beginning with the Ugly, the obvious place to start is Manning's worst game as a Bronco, Week 2's three-interception horror show on Monday Night Football. (All screenshots are courtesy of ESPN and CBS Sports.)
The first screenshot shows Manning in a familiar position. He is aligned in the shotgun formation with three wide receivers, two to the strong side, one tight end and one running back.
The Falcons are countering with a basic 4-2-5 nickel set, playing what looks like off-man coverage with two deep safeties. Manning's target will be Brandon Stokley in the slot, shown in the highlighted portion.
This is a simple set and the Falcons didn't present Manning with a complicated coverage scheme. Yet, that didn't stop the veteran passer from forcing the ball right into the teeth of the coverage, shown in the screen shot below.
Nickelback Chris Owens (21), covers Stokley off the line before releasing him to the safeties. This gives the Falcons a natural bracket around Stokley, with coverage both in front and behind.
Yet Manning still believes he can thread the ball into the minute gap in the zone and badly overshoots his attempt, resulting in an easy interception for safety Thomas DeCoud. Manning's ill-advised heave gave free safety DeCoud the chance to come across and undercut the pass, shown in the screenshot below.
Manning had been overzealous trying to attack the gaps in zone coverage and was fooled by a simple safety rotation. It was the kind of mistake that comes from the natural rust that accumulates from a prolonged spell on the sidelines. That initial rust defined the first stage of Manning's comeback.
Week 5 saw Manning face an old nemesis, the New England Patriots. It was clear that Manning was closer to regaining his touch, but that the old magic was still not quite there.
A simple play from the second quarter of that game helps illustrate this point. Take a look at the screenshot below.
Manning is going to run a play-action pass, designed to set up a crossing pattern underneath for tight end Jacob Tamme, who is shown in the highlighted portion.
The play fake to rookie running back Ronnie Hillman, succeeds in freezing New England's underneath coverage. The screenshot below shows how.
Linebackers Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo are highlighted and both have been frozen by the play fake. The red arrow shows the trajectory of Tamme's pattern, while the Broncos outside receivers run off the Patriots deep coverage.
Manning gets the match up he wants on the outside, with Tamme beating defensive backs who are scrambling out of their original coverage assignments. The problem was that Manning overthrew Tamme, who was open by some distance, as shown in the screenshot below.
It was a poorly-judged throw and one Manning in his prime could've made in his sleep. It revealed that he was just fraction off his best and that he still had work to do.
By Week 6, Manning had completed that work. The signature play of his dismantling of traditional bogey team, the San Diego Chargers, was his 21-yard strike to Stokley in the fourth quarter.
In the screenshot below, the Broncos are in shotgun formation, with Manning in a familiar three wide receivers, one tight end and one running back personnel package. In classic Manning fashion, he quickly reads the coverage and immediately identifies its weakness.
Manning reads man coverage, with a shingle-high safety. Eric Weddle is the safety boxed at the top of the picture. Manning realizes that he now has Stokley one-on-one in the slot, an ideal matchup.
From here, Manning was back to the player everyone remembers from those glory years in Indianapolis. He was stepping up to direct his players like pieces around a chess board, gesticulating in that always frantic-looking motion that is actually the clockwork precision of a true football brain at work.
The first screenshot shows Manning letting his receivers know how to adjust.
The second shows Manning, the field general, instructing his offensive line to adjust the protection.
This is the Manning every football fan knows, the prime orchestrator, for better or worse, of his offense. From there, Manning carved open the Chargers' defense with a beautifully lofted pass into the corner of the end zone for Stokley.
The coverage was excellent, but the pass and the catch were even better. This play was classic Manning, epitomizing his style of quarterback play.
That style is based on rapid-fire offensive strikes, executed with ruthless precision. It is that speed of thought and execution that every NFL fan had been waiting to see Manning replicate.
Fourteen touchdowns to only four interceptions. 1,808 yards and a 105.0 passer rating. It's safe to say Manning is not only back, but back to his very best.