Playing Peyton: Memories and Mind Games

Peyton Manning may be visiting Cleveland for the final time in his Hall-of-Fame career on Sunday when the Broncos take to FirstEnergy Stadium, leading the Browns to look back on their memories-- and the mind games-- of Manning.

BEREA— Just about everyone in the NFL has a Peyton Manning story. 

Having played in the NFL for over 15 years, Manning serves as a sort of master of ceremonies for the league, providing most of its members with a rite of passage along his incredible journey. 

For Browns coach Mike Pettine, the story is one in which Manning served the former Ravens defensive coach a loss he still can’t get over. 

“The tough memory for me was in ’06 when I was in Baltimore. We were pretty special defensively that year, and we held him to five field goals in a playoff game,” Pettine said. “They didn’t score a touchdown. It was a 30 rating and we got after him pretty good, but just the way the game went, we ended up losing 15-6, and it was a crusher. If I have to rank my toughest losses of all time – ones that people say, ‘You’ll get over it in time’ – I haven’t gotten over that one yet. I don’t think I ever will."

The Manning memories for Browns offensive coordinator John DeFilippo date back to the college days of both himself and of No. 18. 

“When I was in college there was no bigger Peyton Manning fan than me,” DeFilippo said. “I always used to joke with (Oakland Raiders DB) Charles Woodson that I am still mad at him for stealing the Heisman (Trophy) from (Manning).”

Quarterback Josh McCown’s Manning moments date back to college as well, when he played for the Mustangs at SMU. 

“Shoot, it might have been 20 years ago,” McCown said. “(Peyton) and his dad came and spoke at an athletic forum when I was at SMU and so that was my first time meeting him and obviously was very impressed with he and his Dad. (I) just have always had a ton of respect for his game.”

Having played each other many times amidst their NFL journeys, McCown and Manning have had their fair share of moments over the years, but McCown wishes they had one more thing in common. 

“(I) have talked to him as we’ve played each other over the years and shared experiences with obviously him having a brother in the NFL, and I having a brother in the NFL,” McCown said. “Not shared bank accounts, obviously.”

With a family tie to Manning, Browns wide receiver Brian Hartline’s memory originated on a golf course. 

“I remember one time I ran into him down playing golf in Florida. He was on the same course and I said something to him and we chopped it up for a little bit,” Hartline said. “He also was with my brother for a little bit when he was kind of injured in Indianapolis, so he knew my brother, so that was kind of how I started the introduction and I started talking to him.”

Hartline’s meeting with Manning was the only story he was willing to tell, but that doesn’t mean there’s not more to be heard.

There’s one thing to be sure of: the stories all paint a positive picture of Peyton.

“I’ve heard some good stories, through my brother and (former Ohio State wide receiver Anthony) Gonzalez and everything,” Hartline said. “He’s really just a great guy.”

Manning’s fantastic off-the-field persona is the only thing that mirrors his incredible on-field production, which, though it may be dwindling, has maintained a Hall-of-Fame level over the years. 

Despite the decline in Manning’s physical abilities over the years, the Browns, who will face him for perhaps the final time in his career on Sunday, are preparing to see the No. 18 that’s owned the NFL for the majority of his career.

“You see flashes of it on tape that you could make a cut-up where you could make the argument that he is [playing to his full capability],” Pettine said. “I know statistically he hasn’t been, points wise he hasn’t been, but we are preparing to see the best.”

Part of the reason the Browns are expecting to see the best version of Manning possible is because he's much more than his physical abilities allow him to be.

He has an uncanny knack for the mental aspect of football, which continues to keep him amongst the league’s most dangerous commodities, despite any lingering physical issues. 

“On the tape, he still looks like to me he’s playing at a high level,” Browns defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said. “It’s like you’re going against a damn good player and a damn good offensive coordinator all at once.”

Pettine likened playing Manning in football to a different game-- a game in which mental capacity is heavily involved. 

“It’s just such a chess game when you go against him,” Pettine said. “That’s the reason that he’s first-ballot, no-brainer in the Hall of Fame.”

McCown knows too just how good Manning’s mind is, but says that’s it’s not just natural mental ability that allows him to be so dangerous.

“I feel like when you watch him, you don't have to know a lot about football and know he's prepared,” McCown said. “That's the highest compliment I can pay him, that he's always on top of it, always understands what everybody is doing and I think it's what has given him the edge and it's what allows him to play for as long as he has at a high level.”

In the “game of chess” against the football savant, Pettine’s developed a plan to try to counter Manning’s mind games, by playing some mind games of his own.

“You have to change that week and just understand that the last 10 times he’s played against our system, whether it’s looking at the Cleveland tape, whether it’s going back to Jets, I promise you he’s even going back to some of the Baltimore tape and looked at how we defended him,” Pettine said. “You have to almost try to use that against him say, ‘Listen, we have to be different from things that we’ve done because something we’ve lined up in maybe five years ago against him, he’ll recognize it and know what to do against it.’”

The mind games aren’t easy to play with Manning, nor is the game on the field, but Pettine said he’ll miss going against one of the greats, no matter how many times Manning has left him angry with a loss.

"Unfortunately, not many positive memories," Pettine said with a smile, when asked about facing Manning on the field. “It’s a shame it’s potentially winding down for him... He’s clearly in the discussion of the greatest of all time.”

For all of your Browns news, updates and analysis from Berea, follow Hayden Grove on Twitter: @H_Grove.

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