DENVER – Peyton Manning and Mike Shanahan worked for a week together at the Pro Bowl in 2006, talking football and getting ready for an exhibition very few actually look forward to playing in or coaching.
A meaningless game. But hardly a meaningless encounter.
In many ways, the week they spent together in Honolulu was the first in a chain of events that led to the end of Shanahan's stay and Manning's eventual arrival in Denver.
They'll meet again Sunday when Shanahan brings the Washington Redskins (2-4) to Denver (6-1) to face the franchise he led to two Super Bowl victories in the late 1990s.
"He's as good as it gets," Shanahan said. "He understands the game inside and out. He's one of the guys that comes along about once every 20, 30, 40 years. They don't happen very often."
After seeing Manning's focus and passion up-close during Pro Bowl week nearly eight years ago, Shanahan returned to Denver and started making big changes. He drafted Jay Cutler and set the stage for saying goodbye to Jake Plummer, a seat-of-the-pants quarterback with whom Shanahan never saw things eye to eye.
Cutler went 17-20 as a starter — and that spate of mediocrity marked the end of Shanahan's 14 seasons as Denver's head coach, and the start of a tumultuous time for the Broncos.
When Manning was choosing a team during his 2012 free agency, he met with Shanahan and considered the Redskins. But that would've put him in the same division with his brother, Eli. The discussion was rendered pointless when Washington traded for the second spot in the draft knowing Robert Griffin III or Andrew Luck would be available.
The Redskins took Griffin.
The Broncos signed Manning.
And as things turned out, Shanahan and Manning struck up a good enough friendship that Shanahan ended up letting Manning stay at his house while the quarterback was shopping the Denver real estate market.
"I've just always had a great respect for him," Manning said.
Here are five things to watch when the Broncos host the Redskins in Shanahan's return to Denver:
PEYTON'S ANKLE: Manning took a beating last week in Denver's first loss of the season, 39-33 to the Colts. As a result, he missed his first regular-season practice as a Bronco, sitting out Wednesday's session with a tweaked ankle. As is the case with all things Manning, there has been a lot of conjecture about when, exactly, he got hurt and how much it affected him. Best guess: When Robert Mathis sacked him from the blind side, stripping the ball and scoring a safety in the second quarter.
The Broncos didn't score on their next six drives — a dry spell of epic proportions for a team with a record 298 points through seven games — though Manning played well in the fourth quarter and nearly completed a comeback from 19 points down.
MASTERMIND'S RECEPTION: The Broncos are planning a short video tribute for Shanahan when he runs onto the field with the Redskins, fitting for the man who won 146 games and brought two Super Bowl trophies to Denver. Shanahan said he expects a warm reception with no boos because, after all, "I don't think I did anything wrong to get booed. I didn't leave. They fired me."
ANY DEFENSE?: The teams combined to give up 80 points last week. Washington overcame that in a 45-41 win over Chicago. Denver didn't in its loss to Indy. The Broncos' defense is ranked 30th, and 32nd in yards passing allowed. The Redskins' defense is ranked 25th. Las Vegas has set the over-under for the game at 58½ points — six higher than the next-highest game on the board.
RG3's FORM: Griffin finished with 298 yards passing and two touchdowns last week and led the Redskins on a winning 80-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes. Or, to put it more simply, he looked as good as he had since last year before his knee injury in the playoffs. Some say it's a sign Griffin is all the way back from the injury, which kept him out during the preseason. Griffin just calls it a matter of the offense working better together. "The first couple weeks of the season, we were out of sync, as a whole," he said.
DENVER'S O-LINE: Was it one bad week or the sign of something more serious? Denver's re-juggled offensive line allowed Manning to get hit 10 times last week. With right tackle Orlando Franklin starting the week unable to practice, along with the new right guard, Chris Kuper, it looked as though Denver would have to mix and match again. Manning said the key for the line, no matter who plays, is to identify the different looks the Redskins like to give on defense.
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