The San Francisco 49ers might be tired of these Mannings by now. Last time Jim Harbaugh's team was on the field in a game that counted, it was Eli Manning who sliced and diced Vic Fangio's defense in the 2011 NFC championship game, completing 32 of 56 passes for 316 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions against a team that led the NFL in turnover ratio in the regular season. And in a Week 3 preseason master class, older brother Peyton shredded San Francisco's starting 11 even more as Manning the Elder completed 10 of 12 passes for 122 yards and two touchdowns in just three series.
"I don't think there is really any barrier with this offense," Manning said after the game, a 29-24 win by the 49ers in a battle of mostly second teams. "What I have done in my past, on the teams I have played on, I think are really irrelevant to this year's team. We are still forming our identity—seeing what plays we can hang our hat on. I think [offensive coordinator] coach [Mike] McCoy emphasized the running game today. He challenged the guys to run the ball. I thought we did that against a good defensive front. It's still preseason and really carries no weight once the regular season starts, but it was good to do that and answer that challenge. So, I think the coaches have tough decisions to make, roster wise, these next two weeks. We got a lot of guys competing for some spots, and I think we will form our identity as the season goes on. How many pass attempts that is, I couldn't tell you. "
It was a triumphant performance for Manning in more than a statistical fashion. Peyton took a hard hit from linebacker Parys Haralson and went to the ground with Haralson's helmet placed near his shoulder. After that play, Manning got up and coolly threw one of his scoring passes. Before this game, Manning was 20 of 30 for 221 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions in preseason contests against the Chicago Bears and Seattle Seahawks.
Asked on Thursday whether the 49ers' generally excellent defense was a litmus test of sorts, Manning brushed that aside.
"What does that mean, exactly?" Manning asked. "It's hard to say. [Head] coach [John] Fox has not addressed the playing time scenario. We played a good bit last week, which unfortunately means that some of the other guys did not get to play as much. So I don't know whether that will factor into the decision on how much we'll play.
"Like I said, we really are kind of going Broncos vs. Broncos, at least we did today. I'm sure we'll get into San Fran later in the week. You'd have to give [coach Fox] — he'd have to give you a better answer to that. So however much we play, it'll be a great test. It's a different type of defense, which is always good, and they're an excellent team."
From the start of this game, Manning seemed eager to prove that he was all the way back, and in full fighting shape. He was accurate to all fields, if a bit wobbly on some longer throws, like his 38-yard completion to running back Lance Ball on the second drive. But he was solid all the way through, running the offense at the line, working play-action in seamlessly (which led to more rushing opportunities for Willis McGahee), and if not looking precisely like the Manning of yore, came up with enough positive strides in that direction.
"In training camp, we have put [Lance] outside at wide receiver a few times and, heck, actually thrown that particular pattern actually a couple times in training camp," Manning said of Ball's reception. "So, it's always nice when you can take something that you've worked on in practice and take it to the playing field. I thought it was a really good route and a good finish by him today."
Of course, Manning may have been inspired by Harbaugh's presence, given the coach's seeming double-talk regarding whether the 49ers were pursuing or merely "evaluating" Manning when Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman traveled to the Duke football campus on March 13 to get a handle on where Manning was in his recovery following his release from the Colts. Two months later, and with Alex Smith firmly re-entrenched as the 49ers' starting quarterback, Harbaugh decided to do a little bit of spin-doctoring.
"There's a perception out there, and it's an erroneous perception, that we were flirting with Peyton Manning," Harbaugh said at the end of a May 30 media conference. "I keep hearing it over and over. It's silly and it's untrue. It's phony. Even the perception that we were pursuing. We were evaluating."
Well, Harbaugh got a pretty decent evaluation of Manning on Sunday afternoon. We're assuming he didn't much like what he saw.
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