Peyton Manning Could Put Patriots Supporters in Strange Position of Sympathy as He Returns to NFL in Lesser Form


Peyton Manning Could Put Patriots Supporters in Strange Position of Sympathy as He Returns to NFL in Lesser FormThis Sunday, Peyton Manning returns to Gillette Stadium.

It's a place that hasn't been kind to him, against a team that's been even less kind.

In Manning's resume of greatness, he could have the wins, the completion records, the touchdown throws. But the Patriots would take the big wins, the titles — and his heart.

Gillette was the home of Ty Law, whose telepathy with Manning's sharpest passes sealed games. It's the stomping ground for Tom Brady, who will always compliment Manning before leaving the field with more games to play as Manning's season ends (that one AFC Championship game being the aberration).

Gillette is a place that invites the elements to attack as they will, then still hoists Super Bowl banners for the home team, which never seems fazed by the lack of the climate-controlled environment that Manning could never fully take advantage of in Indianapolis.

But when Manning comes to Gillette this Sunday with the Broncos, the situation will be different. Yes, Manning is a dominant quarterback still, and he's even been sharp this season, erasing many of the concerns skeptics had as he returned from a one-season layoff. His arm strength is fine enough (a bad Manning is still well above most of the league's quarterbacks), and his rhythm and accuracy are coming around.

But this Manning is just a couple of throws away from being a tragic figure. Not tragic like when the Pats thrashed him in the playoffs to end another one of his immaculate 14-win seasons. Tragic like when a whole generation recognizes a great player and competitor then suddenly watches the man shrink before their eyes.

Manning no longer inspires the fear he had when he was at the top of the game, big-game losses or not. The AFC South had nothing against him for years, and any bravado was just a running of the mouth until he surgically picked apart those opponents, stamping another season of record-book excellent. Even for Patriots fans, who loathed the man and felt their team was always ready to take him down, Manning was good — fearfully good, the kind of good that provokes a deep breath before the "IND" comes up on the schedule.

That was what made rooting against Manning so magical. Call him "Poo-head" Manning (or the other, more colorful versions), and celebrate the "Manning face" (how many New England families thought they invented that term)? Hate him more when his kid brother manages to win games and titles he had no business winning with his oversized helmet and mouth hanging open.

Nothing was more sweet to Patriots fans than Manning's head jerking down in disappointment, his mouth furrowed in a frown, his shoulders with his extra-floppy sleeves hunched over after he'd been whipped again. Take glory in beating Jay Cutler and Ryan Fitzpatrick and Chad Pennington all day — but this was the real deal. Manning was the big fish.

His defeats were awesome because he was so, so good.

But that Manning disappeared after 2010, when the Colts won the AFC South yet again, headed to the playoffs for the ninth year in a row at 10-6. Manning, who never made much of an issue about the pains that afflict every football player, needed surgery in the offseason to tweak this or that. What happened was a saga that would have been as captivating as a Brett Favre unretirement or Dwight Howard tradefest — except this was Manning, who wanted nothing but to just work through it and play again.

His drama was not self-made, and nothing he could do could change his situation. After 13 dominant years in the NFL, bad led to worse, and Manning faced never playing again.

This was the point where the vitriol had to at least stall, if not fade, for Patriots fans. A noble opponent is fine to kick around when he's bringing his best each week and just can't seem to overcome the local team. But when a man is diminished — when his livelihood seems all but gone, and a career once so apt to be pilloried because it was so good was instead suddenly over — well, that made the situation different. The quick laugh that Manning had a neck injury and was missing games was met with a sober understanding that this man's life may have changed forever.

As Manning came to grips with the idea that he could possibly not play again, or that, when he did, it would be as a reduced player, the Manning face because less something to mock and more something to sympathize with. Manning is a true competitor. He doesn't make excuses, and he always brings his best — as idiosyncratic as he can be.

To see Manning pushed out of contention by factors he couldn't control was a gut-check to true fans of football. Competition is about winning and losing, defeating and achieving — not seeing a worthy challenger kicked out of the contest in the worst of ways.

As Manning eventually found a new home with the Broncos and got back to playing, the situation again changed. Whereas fans could be ready to give their sympathy to a man cut down in his prime, Manning returning to his previous form is a different matter. Opposing fans will give no sympathy if Manning is flinging his arms around at the line of scrimmage, then dumping 20-yard passes. And Patriots fans will have no soft spots for the defeated Manning face when he steps out in Gillette this week, fully ready to challenge a New England team that will need its A-game to beat him.

But, for a moment over the last year, Patriots followers got a chance to think about Manning beyond the sneers and laughs that accompanied all their shared moments before. They had a time where they could consider him in the retrospect of his career, for what he did for a game by giving them true competition, and a true need to achieve.

A hurt or weak-armed Manning may get an ounce of sympathy from Patriots fans at Gillette this weekend, but chances are Manning will come out strong, improving as he has all season as he fights to get back to peak form.

Expect creative taunts, and cries for the Manning face.

Sympathy may come, but it can wait. Sundays are for victory.

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