ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Even while he was trying to tamp down expectations, Peyton Manning couldn't have envisioned this scene playing out.
Three times, the Broncos quarterback dropped back to pass. Three times, he threw into a seam near the numbers down the right side of the field.
Three times, a defensive back followed Manning's eyes, cut over and turned whatever small opening the quarterback had seen into an interception.
All that in the first quarter alone. Those early interceptions against Atlanta on Monday night matched the most turnover-riddled quarter of football Manning has played in his 15-year career. They put Denver into too big of a hole to dig out of in what turned into a 27-21 loss.
Asked after the game if the interceptions had more to do with his surgically repaired neck or his decision making, Manning wasted no time.
"Decision making," he said.
But there was some zip missing on some of those intermediate-distance passes and there were a few wobblers mixed in there, as well, including on his lone touchdown pass, to Demaryius Thomas near the end of the first half.
Coach John Fox said Manning was not on the injury report when the team returned home Tuesday. Certainly, though, the Broncos would love to avoid putting him in these situations on a regular basis.
Faced with the early deficit and forced to drop back to pass 40 times, Manning was sacked three of those times and hit six more, including once when Falcons linebacker John Abraham grabbed the inside of the back of his jersey and yanked him down from behind.
Manning finished 24 for 37 for 241 yards with a touchdown and three interceptions. His quarterback rating: 58.5. Clearly not what the Broncos were thinking when they landed the most coveted free agent in the history of the league.
"Really, three poor decisions, three throws into coverage," Manning said. "I just have to be able to eliminate those."
He did, of course, settle down and rally the Broncos to within a score at the end.
Not surprising, then, that unlike last season, when Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow were the Broncos starters, this bad performance isn't triggering a full-scale analysis of what's right and wrong with the quarterback position in Denver — at least not from the coach.
"I think there's a couple of throws he'd like to have back or maybe to have gone a different direction," Fox said. "But when you have that job title as quarterback, it's not any easy job, for sure. But it wasn't about one guy."
Indeed, the Broncos had other problems.
Willis McGahee's lost fumble with 2 seconds left in the first quarter made the Broncos the first team since Oct. 13, 2002, to lose four turnovers in the opening 15 minutes.
Denver committed 10 penalties for 96 yards, not all of which can be blamed on replacement officials who suffered through a poor night and oversaw a first half that ran nearly two hours.
Fox used his last challenge early in the second quarter to question a 12-men-on-the-field call on first-and-10 for the Falcons that turned out to be correct. The Broncos played the final 42:27 of the game without a challenge.
On Tuesday, Fox didn't respond to a question about that call and veered away from criticizing the replacements. Clearly, though, he said nearly 100 yards in penalties won't suffice.
"We made more errors than I would have liked. That's something that we'll get corrected," he said. "What we report to the league, our comments on that, is in-house material. I can't comment and won't as far as what we did and what we didn't do, what was right and what was not right. That's pretty much (our) policy."
Manning, not surprisingly, shouldered the blame for his poor start in this, his first road game since Dec. 26, 2010.
It marked only the second time he had thrown three interceptions in the first quarter of a game; the first came Nov. 11, 2007, on a rain-drenched night in San Diego, where a Manning comeback came up short in a 23-21 loss. Manning also threw three interceptions in the fourth quarter of a 2000 game against New England.
"Each turnover has its own story that no one really wants to hear," he said. "I've just got to take care of the ball better."
Strange to hear Manning, he of the 402 career touchdowns and only 201 interceptions, talk that way.
But ever since he signed with the Broncos, and even after his successful debut against Pittsburgh in which he threw two touchdowns and finished with a passer rating of 129.2, he's been insisting there is still fine-tuning to do — some rust to shake off. Over 15 forgettable minutes that he's hoping will be a hiccup, not a trend, he showed everyone what he was talking about.
"Really a tough start," Manning said. "I won't make any excuses for it."
Notes: The Broncos place OL Philip Blake on injured reserve with a thumb injury he suffered a week ago. They signed OL C.J. Davis off the practice squad and replaced him by signing OL Adam Grant to the practice squad. ... Under Fox, the Broncos are 1-0 in Sunday games following a Monday nighter, defeating Cincinnati 24-22 last September after losing to Oakland the previous Monday.