The Tampa Bay Buccaneers haven't faced Peyton Manning since 2007 when, still with the Indianapolis Colts, he completed 29 of 37 passes for 253 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 101.9 against them in an Indy victory. In other words, a typical outing for the Hall of Fame-bound passer.
Manning is now a Denver Bronco, but he's still enjoying those kinds of performances on a weekly basis. Many wondered whether the 36-year-old quarterback would be able to recapture his old Colts form after missing an entire season due to a neck injury and switching teams for the first time in his NFL career, but his 2012 passer rating is 104.8, third-best in the NFL and the second-best mark of his career, if maintained. He's been over 100 in that category in seven of Denver's 11 games this year, and hasn't dipped below 90.5 since Week Three.
Tampa Bay's defense has been almost completely overhauled since that 2007 meeting – even lone holdover Ronde Barber is playing a different position – but the challenge remains very much the same. The Buccaneers take on Manning's Broncos in Denver on Sunday, and they've prepared for a quarterback who is still apparently in his prime.
"There aren't very many differences," said Buccaneers Head Coach Greg Schiano. "It's his stuff, it's him, he's back and he's playing at a very, very high level. And what's happening is that those around him are starting to understand exactly what he wants and exactly the level of play that's expected. So they're a team that's made progress throughout the year, just as we have. They've gotten better and with some new pieces sometimes that happens. As everyone gets more used to each other, they improve."
Denver has the NFL's fourth-best offense in terms of yards, third-best in terms of points, and they've done it without a particularly consistent rushing attack. Manning has his fingerprints all over the team, which was 31st in the league in passing yards a year ago despite having much of the same cast. That extends to how the offense operates as much as what it produces. Manning has a well-developed ability to play the adjustment game with opposing defenses at the line of scrimmage.
"He's the best there is at doing it, and he's given the leeway to do it," said Schiano. "That's one of the reasons they went out and got him, and they're letting him do what he does best. When he's out there, it's like you have another coach who just happens to be playing quarterback. So we're going to have to do our best to disguise what we're in. That's always part of the challenge, but it will especially be this week."
Manning will also have the home crowd at his back, and the Broncos have lost just once at Sports Authority Field in 2012. It would behoove the Buccaneers to keep Denver from feeding off the fans' energy and making the home field advantage even more severe. Tampa Bay led the NFL in first-possession points through the first 12 weeks of the season and would like to keep that trend going on Sunday.
"Any road environment is tough," said Schiano. "We're battling the fans when we have the football, that's what it boils down to. And this is a great place – just look around, it's beautiful. But it's going to be a challenge, for sure, and the best way to take the crowd out of the game is to score some points early."
Manning will be without one of his more commonly-targeted opponent, as WR Brandon Stokley, a wizard out of the slot, is inactive due to injury. The Broncos' defense is also missing DE Robert Ayers, who has been away from the team this week due to a death in the family. Along with Stokley and Ayers, Denver deactivated QB Caleb Hanie, CB Tracy Porter, FB Jacob Hester, C/G C.J. Davis and TE Julius Thomas.
The Buccaneers have no players out due to injury on Sunday, and only had to name six inactives because their roster currently sits at 52, not 53. Tampa Bay's inactives are RB Michael Smith, LB Najee Goode, G/T Derek Hardman, WR David Gilreath, WR David Douglas and DT Matthew Masifilo. Hardman, Gilreath, Douglas and Masifilo are all players the Bucs have signed (or re-signed) over the past three weeks and none has played a game as a Buccaneer yet.
The Bucs and Broncos will kick off at 4:05 p.m. ET. The game will be televised by FOX and will be broadcast on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM. That radio broadcast will also be carried live on Buccaneers.com. Buccaneers.com will post a running blog of all the action on Sunday, and will also provide coverage of the team's postgame press conferences.