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Manning, shaky Broncos’ offense to battle Browns

CLEVELAND (AP) — All these years later, Browns coach Mike Pettine still can’t shake the gnawing memories of a playoff matchup against Peyton Manning.

It left a mark.

“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,” Pettine said. “I don’t think I ever will.”

Pettine isn’t the only coach tormented by Manning, who has not lived up to his impeccable standards this season and yet leads an unbeaten Broncos (5-0) team into Sunday’s game against the Browns (2-3), who have dropped 10 straight to Denver.

And although Manning has struggled, Pettine knows better than to think the likely future Hall of Famer won’t be his usual self.

“I know statistically he hasn’t been, points-wise he hasn’t been, but we are preparing to see the best,” Pettine said.

Manning’s slow start — just six touchdowns and seven interceptions — prompted a reporter to ask Broncos coach Gary Kubiak if he has considered making a switch at quarterback. Kubiak quickly dismissed the idea.

“I don’t think we’re through,” Kubiak said. “We all have to get better, and if we all get better, we’ll help him from that standpoint.”

The 39-year-old Manning has been bailed out by Denver’s top-ranked, intimidating defense, which has 22 sacks and 17 takeaways. These busting Broncos have Pettine’s attention.

“We have not gone against a defense like this, one that rushes the passer like they do, get off the ball, very good in the secondary,” Pettine said. “They are No. 1 … overall defensively. It is for a good reason.”

With an overtime win at Baltimore last week, the Browns exorcised a few demons inside their division. Now they’ve got a chance to help Pettine erase a piece of his past with Manning, who beat him in 2006 when he was on Baltimore’s coaching staff.

“We held him to five field goals,” Pettine recalled. “They didn’t score a touchdown. But just the way the game went, we ended up losing 15-6, and it was a crusher.”

WARD’S HOMECOMING: Broncos safety T.J. Ward expects to have “some feelings” in his first game back in Cleveland since leaving as a free agent in 2014.

Ward was drafted by the Browns in 2010 and spent four seasons in Cleveland, making the Pro Bowl in his final year.

Ward hoped to stay with the Browns, but said he was never offered a contract.

“I didn’t feel like I was welcomed back,” he said. “I never wanted to leave.”

DYNAMIC DUO: Manning’s issues have not affected wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, who rank first in the league with 72 combined receptions. They have also accounted for 834 yards receiving, also tops for any offensive tandem.

Denver’s ground game, however, ranks 30th overall.

STILL THE MANNING: Browns linebacker Paul Kruger isn’t buying the talk that Manning is washed up.

“There’s always going to be speculation with some of those older guys,” Kruger said. “‘When are they going to start deteriorating?’ or, ‘What plays can they make versus what they could’ve made back in the day?’ He looks pretty good to me.”

KICKER CONNECTION: Broncos kicker Brandon McManus attended North Penn High School in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, where Pettine coached.

McManus has made all 12 of his field-goal attempts, including four over 50 yards. Pettine said he spoke with Dick Beck, who coached McManus.

“He was quick to remind me he was 12 for 12 and 4 for 4 over 50 yards,” Pettine said.

PERFECT VIEW: Kubiak has a deep background with the Browns. A backup quarterback behind John Elway, he was the holder on Rich Karlis’ winning field goal in overtime of the 1986 AFC championship, a game forever marked by “The Drive” that Elway led Denver on to tie the game in the final moments.

Cleveland fans have long contested the kick was wide left, and Kubiak attested it was close.

“Was that field goal good?” Kubiak on a conference call. “Well, it had paint on it but, yeah, I think it was good.”

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