INDIANAPOLIS — Peyton Manning isn’t sure what to expect when he returns to Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday night for the first time as a member of the Denver Broncos.
He’ll dress in an unfamiliar locker room and line up against an Indianapolis Colts team with familiar uniforms but very few familiar faces. He isn’t sure how his emotions will affect him before, after or during the game.
And he’s not even certain how he’s supposed to react.
It’s an uncommon position for a quarterback who is always in control.
“Somebody asked me earlier, is it the same as playing against (brother) Eli?” Manning said during a conference call this week at the Colts’ training facility. “And I said, ‘I guarantee Robert Mathis hits a heck of a lot harder than Eli does.’ From that standpoint, it’s definitely different.”
Still, it’s a safe bet Manning will quickly find his footing.
He’s off to the best start of his 16-year NFL career and, in fact, the best start ever for any quarterback in the league. Manning is completing 74.2 percent of his passes for 2,179 yards with 22 touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 128.8, and he’s on pace to set single-season records in each category.
In a career filled with masterpieces, this season might be Manning’s Mona Lisa.
“They’re going to make plays,” Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said. “He’s going to make plays. They’re going to move the ball. They’ve moved it on everybody. We know that. We’ll come up with the best possible plan that gives our guys the best possible chance to do well and win the football game.”
In all the hoopla surrounding this prime time telecast — from the debate over whether Indianapolis made the right decision to release Manning two years ago to the Twitter furor over Colts owner Jim Irsay’s comments earlier this week — it’s easy to lose sight of the fact a football game will be played Sunday night.
But leave it to Manning to focus on what matters. Like his matchup against the Indianapolis defense.
“It may sound strange, but it’s an unfamiliar opponent,” the quarterback said. “A lot of guys on defense that I’ve never played against and even a lot of our players haven’t played against. Certainly didn’t play them last year. So it’s not like a division game or a team you played in the playoffs that you’re a little more familiar with. Still getting to know them early in the week, and that’s the only way I know how to approach it.”
Try as he might, however, Manning can’t avoid the questions about what his return to the city in which his professional career began means to him.
And neither can his former teammates.
Reggie Wayne caught passes from Manning for 10 seasons, and he lamented the “circus” atmosphere being created around this game. It’s no different than any other week, the wideout insists.
But he did allow he’s kept in touch with his former quarterback the past two years and values their friendship off the field. They had some pretty good times together on the field, too.
“He did bring some winning ways here,” Wayne said. “We did as a team. Everybody did it together. We just see it as another game. You guys see it a little bit different than that. It’s another game, man. It’s a big game to us just because every game is a big game.”
Safety Antoine Bethea practiced against Manning every day for five seasons. And he’s looking forward to a “crazy” atmosphere and the chance to hit the quarterback for a change on Sunday.
But he understands what Manning means to the fans. And to this franchise.
“He did a lot,” Bethea said. “Brought a lot of wins to this city, to this team. Led us to the Super Bowl my rookie year. So most definitely I know he’s going to be beloved in this city forever.”
The feeling most definitely is mutual.
Manning deftly sidestepped the Irsay controversy during his conference call with Indianapolis reporters. And he showcased his tremendous mental acuity by calling two reporters by name despite the fact he couldn’t see them and hadn’t heard their voices much — if at all — in two years.
The quarterback’s name remains on a children’s hospital in downtown Indianapolis, and he continues to return each year for the fundraising banquet. It’s clear the city always will hold a special place in his heart.
And that was never more evident than in his advice for new Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.
“As far as playing in Indianapolis for those fans,” Manning said, “I can promise you he’s a lucky guy. No pun intended.”