by Jarrett Bell, USA TODAY Sports
ATLANTA -- So much for the Peyton Manning Super Bowl Express.
Sure, the Denver Broncos' mega savior might ultimately end this season in his hometown of New Orleans as a player in Super Bowl XLVII.
But Monday night's horrific outing at the Georgia Dome -- Manning threw three interceptions to end Denver's first three drives -- was quite the reminder for Broncomaniacs that a championship drive is hardly automatic.
Eight nights earlier, Manning looked like the only player in NFL history to win four league MVP awards as he carved up the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was P-Money.
During the 27-21 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, though, Manning looked like a mortal trying to shake off the rust after undergoing four neck surgeries. Early on, it was P-Funk.
Remember when Broncos honcho John Elway declared during training camp that Manning's lively arm was pretty as good as ever? Elway -- and what else could he say, given the huge risk he took on Manning? -- said he saw it in practice and compared Manning film from previous years.
Well, there's some fresh video in the house.
Manning's first pick, into the hands of safety William Moore, was underthrown toward tight end Jacob Tamme, deep over the middle.
The second one, again deep for Tamme, lacked zip and was snagged by safetyThomas DeCoud.
The third INT, on another deep seam route, ran out of steam. Brandon Stokley never had a chance, swallowed in double coverage. Robert McClain got the pick.
"Poor decisions," Manning said. "Three throws into coverage. I've got to eliminate those."
The Falcons maintained that their disguised coverages led to the turnovers,limiting the clues that Manning could get with pre-snap reads. Moore said helooked Manning off while roaming in the middle of the field before his pick.
Manning dismissed the notion that he was confused by the strategies.
Nonetheless, he will head into Sunday's game against the Houston Texans trying to rebound from his first three-interception game since, well, the threeconsecutive games of such note during a second-half slump in a cold November of his final season with the Indianapolis Colts in 2010.
That Denver trailed just 10-zip following the first-quarter sequence and lost by just six points allowed for some drama beyond the heap of second-guessing of the replacement officials.
Yet Manning could never seize the moment to put together a sustained threat and write a miracle comeback against a fast Falcons squad backed by ear-splittingnoise in the dome.
He finished with a 58.5 passer rating, his lowest since a Nov. 2008 contest at Cleveland, which is what three picks will do for the efficiency formula.
Beneath the stats? Too many of Manning's throws seemed wounded rather than crisp, although Demaryius Thomas produced Denver's first touchdown on one ofthem just before the half, with a remarkable toe-tap before falling out of bounds cradling the football.
On the night, Manning too often didn't have the good, accurate stuff on the type of long and intermediate passes that he torched secondaries with for years.
Hey, games like this happen. Manning, 36, is human.
Someone asked Manning if his Monday night was related to the injuries that forced him to miss all of last season.
"No," he insisted flatly.
But people will wonder after games like Monday night.
Countered Broncos coach John Fox, "It's not going to happen overnight."
As the Broncos adjust to the Manning offense, and he adjusts to new personnel around him, this has always presented itself as a work in progress. If the keycogs stay healthy, the precision, timing and rhythm will undoubtedly improve through the season with repetition.
Manning knows this. The offense displayed on Monday night probably won't be the same stuff that will be seen down the stretch.
He will study the schemes and self-critique the techniques. And when he sees those bad decisions and bad throws, he'll have a clue.
Is he pressing?
"When I see the film, I'm sure I'll see somebody open on a checkdown," he said of the pending picks review. "I'll learn from it."
If not, the Super Bowl Express will be in big trouble.
Copyright 2012 USA TODAY