Chalk it up to a pair of knee surgeries that kept the record-setting quarterback on the sideline through the entire preseason. But Manning found his groove in a 31-3 beating of the Baltimore Ravens last week, hitting 19-of-28 passes for 271 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Manning, who has started every game of his professional career — Sunday's game at Green Bay will be No. 166 — certainly appreciates the good fortune of escaping injury for so long. He says the knee caused some of his early-season problems, and noted that recovering was difficult because he had no injury to compare it to.
"All I've ever known throughout my career, at any level, is to take every rep and practice every practice. It was the first practice I had ever had to miss (in the NFL). I've been very fortunate, and there's a lot of want-to in there, also, of wanting to be out there."
Because Manning hasn't watched any film of a defense that's faced the Packers' offense, he knows little about today's other starting quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. They share one thing in common, though: playing through pain.
"The thing you have to ask," Manning said, "is can you do your job and not put yourself in harm, but can you do your job and not hurt your team? You have to take all pride and those kind of things out of it and just ask yourself the real question: Can I make the throws? Can I go out there and hit the critical third-down pass? Fortunately, I've been able to say ‘yes' to those kind of questions and not put my team at a disadvantage."
That's a question Rodgers had to answer before facing Atlanta two weeks ago. Rodgers wasn't sure his strained throwing shoulder would allow him to play against the Falcons until going through an early-morning warmup on the day of the game. Now, after two strong performances, there's no doubt about Rodgers' toughness.
"Oh, I think it's huge," McCarthy said of being able to count on Rodgers. "I think it's huge for your football team. It's very important for your offense. I've always felt from an offensive structure, the way to improve offensively is, A, you've got to be strong up the middle because the people in the middle of your offense make the most decisions. I'm talking about the quarterback, the center and the running back. It always works from the inside out, and the continuity that is established with your offense starts with those individuals.
"The fact that he is playing every week and he is preparing every week, it gives us an opportunity to improve not only as an offense but as a football team."
While there was much consternation about Rodgers' availability a couple of weeks ago, there were few worries about Manning, even though he was a spectator through training camp.
"It's obviously easier with a veteran quarterbacks," Colts coach Tony Dungy said. "You have a guy like Peyton Manning, and if he says he can play, you're not worried about how he's going to function if he doesn't have all his practice reps. You tend to believe him and know that if he says he can go out there, he can get the job done."
McCarthy, who coached Joe Montana in Kansas City and Brett Favre in Green Bay, was asked about the qualities that make Manning special.
"Well, I think anytime you have a quarterback of that stature, I know just the first thing that I noticed being around two quarterbacks of such prominence is as soon as they come running out of the tunnel, not only does their team think they have a great chance to win, but everybody in the stadium does," McCarthy said.
"Peyton has established himself in the National Football League with his consistency of playing at such a high level. The thing that I was amazed by Joe Montana was his accuracy and his anticipation. He's still the best that I've ever been around as far as anticipating plays ant eh accuracy with the football. And the same with Brett. They're winners, they champ at the bit, and they give your team an excellent chance to win week in and week out."
Rodgers has put the Packers in position to win this season, and now he'll be on the same field as Manning.
"I don't look at it is a one-on-one matchup," Rodgers said, "but obviously, it's important that I play well, get our offense in good situations and try to get the ball to our playmakers and let them make plays."
That's something done Manning has done like few other players in league history.
Bill Huber is editor of Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org