ATLANTA -- So what happened? Did Peyton Manning age 20 years in a week?
Or are the Atlanta Falcons that good on defense?
"No, he's still Peyton," Falcons corner Dunta Robinson said. "We just had him confused for a while."
Confused. Befuddled. Pick any word and they all fit Manning in the first quarter of the Falcons' 27-21 victory over the Denver Broncos on Monday night at the Georgia Dome.
For a guy who prides himself on the details, always seemingly one step ahead of the defense, Manning looked unsure, unsettled and unlike Peyton Manning for the first 15 minutes.
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He threw three interceptions, had a passer rating of 31.2, five lower than his age, and he probably had some in Denver wishing they had that left-handed fullback of a quarterback under center.
OK, so maybe it wasn't that bad.
But a week after lighting up the Pittsburgh Steelers in his first game in a year and his first with the Broncos, Manning had some wondering if his Week 1 showing was more of an aberration than what will be the norm.
When do you ever see Manning throwing three picks into coverage? Forget about the arm issues, which some still contend is a problem after he missed last season following neck surgery.
This problem against the Falcons, who are now 2-0, was from the neck up.
"Just a really rough start," Manning said. "I won't make any excuses for it."
Manning, who sees everything even before the snap, didn't seem ready for what the Falcons threw at him.
"It came down to disguises and looks," safety William Moore said.
Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, in his first year with Atlanta, is known for his aggressive, attacking ways. But often times early in this game, the Falcons would show 11 near the line, and then drop off into coverage.
That led to a pick by Moore to open the game, leading to a 1-yard touchdown run by Michael Turner, followed by interceptions by Thomas DeCoud and corner Robert McClain. The result was the Falcons leading 20-7 at the half as the defense led the way.
"You don't see Peyton that way a lot," DeCoud said. "We seemed to do some things that he wasn't ready for."
The Falcons defense has been a sideshow of sorts this summer. It's been all about the new-look offense under first-year coordinator Dirk Koetter. It is an up-tempo style that steals the headlines and the highlights.
But Nolan's defense is aggressive as well. He uses so many looks up front, dropping different guys into coverage, or rushing different numbers from all angles, that it's tough to figure out.
It took Manning a while, but eventually he started to get it. Manning finished 24 of 37 for 241 yards and a touchdown, but that passer rating of 58.5 is downright eye opening after what he did to the Steelers in the opener.
Manning did lead the Broncos to two fourth-quarter touchdowns to make it close, but the Falcons ran out the clock to seal the victory.
Inside the locker room, the defensive players got all the attention.
What started out as a horrible week for the defense, with Pro Bowl corner Brent Grimes going down for the year with a torn Achilles tendon, ended on an up note by making Manning look like a confused first-time starter.
Don't sleep on the defense.
"Hey, let those guys get all the attention," Robinson said. "They're the stars. They have Matt Ryan. Roddy. Julio Jones. Tony Gonzalez. Michael Turner. Let them get the attention. We'll just go about doing our jobs. It's OK. As long as we do what we're capable of doing, we're fine with it."
It's that defense that will define this team in 2012. The Falcons were 23rd in total defense last season. But that was the old style.
"They knew where we were lining up," Robinson said. "Now they have no idea."
When Peyton Manning has no idea, you know it's good.
For a quarter, the Falcons made him look like he should have stayed on the sidelines. Eventually he started to figure things out like he always does.
"That's the thing about Peyton," Robinson said. "You might get him early, but you can't count him out until there are zeros on that clock."
So don't pile on Manning. Don't wish for that gimmicky read-option to return to Denver.
This was about a young defense getting the best of one of the greatest quarterbacking minds in the game and, in the process, maybe growing up and showing this a team ready to contend for a Super Bowl.