Extra Points: Manning looks mortal in Atlanta

Expecting Peyton Manning to hit the ground running after four different neck surgeries and nearly two calendar years away from the game was asking a bit much.

But there was Manning slicing and dicing the always tough Pittsburgh Steelers defense in his Denver debut just over a week ago.

The sequel, however, fell more than flat as Manning looked like a once-elite signal-caller without his signature zip on the ball during the Broncos' 27-21 loss to the Atlanta Falcons Monday night.

Three of Manning's first eight throws were picked off at the Georgia Dome and each looked like it came from a weak-armed novice trying to force the ball, not the only four-time MVP in NFL history.

Part of Manning's problems were certainly rust-related. He seemed indecisive and was late on a number of throws, two criticisms that are rarely hurled at perhaps the best regular-season quarterback in NFL history.

Manning's first miscue, which landed into the hands of safety William Moore, was a badly underthrown toss to tight end Jacob Tamme over the middle. His second was snagged by safety Thomas DeCoud, who easily undercut Tamme on another weakly thrown ball, while the third INT was a pass which again lacked velocity and failed to find veteran Brandon Stokley.

"Poor decisions," Manning said. "Three throws into coverage. I've got to eliminate those."

John Elway and John Fox want to believe that and they almost have too.

Poor decision making is the type of thing which can be written off due to inactivity. Arm strength and an inability to make consistent NFL throws, however, is a much more serious issue.

Elway was on record at training camp that Manning's arm was as good as it's ever been. The video on Monday night contrasted that viewpoint sharply and for all his success against Pittsburgh a week earlier, few seemed to notice the 11-time Pro Bowl selection rarely went down the field against the Steelers.

Fox was quick to jump on his sword for Manning after his poor performance against the Falcons.

"You have to remember Peyton Manning is a new QB in our system, he is still adjusting to teammates and the things that we are doing that won't happen overnight," the coach said. "That's just a fact you know he is going to get better."

Atlanta, meanwhile, raved about its coverages and was convinced Manning's errors were not of the unforced variety.

"We were able to disguise our coverages very well," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "That's something we said all week that we had to do. You have to make sure that you don't give the quarterback a pre-snap read and we were able to that early in the game."

"It came down to disguises, and our looks," Moore added. "We came up with a great game plan. (Defensive coordinator) Mike Nolan did an excellent job of game planning this week."

Maybe if Smith and Moore were talking about Brandon Weeden, Russell Wilson or Ryan Tannehill, that kind of spin would fly, but does anyone outside of Atlanta really believe Peyton Manning was confused by the Falcons' pre-snap looks?

A loss to a very good team on the road, especially one that's out of conference, is not the end of the world in the NFL.

Doubt is the bigger problem in Denver on Tuesday and it has creeped into the organization's psyche whether the Broncos want to admit it or not.