When Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning takes the field against the New England Patriots on Sunday in the AFC Championship Game, he won't be playing at the same level that has allowed him to throw 539 touchdowns and 71,940 yards in his 18-year career.
Don't tell that to New England head coach Bill Belichick.
“Peyton’s a great player,” Belichick said Wednesday, per Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk. “We’ve had tremendous battles with him through the years. There’s no player off our team I have more respect for than Peyton Manning. His preparation, his consistency, his skills, I would never, ever, ever underestimate him under any circumstances.”
The 63-year-old head coach also called Denver the "best team we’ve played this year."
New England's had 16 previous battles against Manning with Tom Brady under center, and it's won 11 of them. However, an injury-plagued year has led to the worst season of Manning's career. While missing all or some of eight games with plantar fasciitis, the 39-year-old threw just nine touchdowns against 17 interceptions. His 67.9 quarterback rating was his worst ever.
Even so, he, along with 25-year-old backup Brock Osweiler, performed well enough to lead Denver to an AFC West division title and now the AFC Championship Game. It's evident by this stat from Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated, however, the Broncos defense also had a little something to do with that:
Doug Farrar @BR_DougFarrar
Peyton Manning threw one touchdown pass in Denver this season. Tom Brady threw three there.2016-1-20 16:39:45
Even if Belichick believes preparing against Manning today doesn't take the same amount of work it did in years past, he would never say that to the media. He has too much respect for one of the game's greatest quarterbacks of all time, even if he has lost a step or two.