Dolphins players had four days to rest their bodies and spirits.
Dolphins coaches needed about four seconds Tuesday to yank them back into the moment.
Excellence has a way of focusing the mind. And no quarterback can match Peyton Manning’s prolonged run of excellence.
The five-time league MVP is making a case for his sixth this season, completing 67.1 percent of his passes for 3,301 yards, 30 touchdowns and nine interceptions. His Broncos are 7-3 and host the Dolphins Sunday in a possible playoff preview.
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Team meetings had a postseason feel Tuesday, when Dolphins players returned from their minivacation after beating the Bills last week.
“It was serious,” safety Reshad Jones said of his coaches’ message to the team Thursday.
Here’s how serious:
Defensive players were reminded (as if they needed it) that they are playing a “great team” that is all but unbeatable at home and that the Broncos are the defending AFC champions for a reason.
And that Manning is the best quarterback in the world — which they already knew.
“It’s just going to be a great challenge for the defense, getting them off the field,” cornerback Jamar Taylor said.
The Dolphins might have to face that challenge at less than full strength.
Veteran corner Cortland Finnegan is iffy to play after missing last Thursday’s game with an injured ankle. He sat out the portion of practice open to reporters Tuesday.
If he can’t play Sunday, it will be Taylor again starting opposite Brent Grimes.
Taylor was solid in his first NFL start, particularly against the run. With the Dolphins trailing the Bills 6-3 early in the second half Thursday, he dropped Buffalo running back Bryce Brown for a loss of 6 yards on third-and-1. The play set the tone for the rest of the game.
Taylor was also strong in coverage; Kyle Orton couldn’t complete anything over his head.
“He’s a developing player,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said of Taylor. “His play speed was good for a guy that had his first full start. He played decisively for the most part. I thought his fundamentals were good. I liked the ways our [defensive backs] played.”
With Finnegan out, the Dolphins did change some things. Grimes and Finnegan have mostly stuck to a specific side of the field this season, but Thursday, Grimes shadowed dangerous rookie Sammy Watkins throughout the game.
However, Manning has an arsenal of weapons in Denver and uses them all, so it’s unclear if the Dolphins will employ the same strategy this weekend.
Fortunately for the Dolphins, Denver’s quarterback isn’t infallible.
On Sunday, the Rams harassed Manning into one of his least productive games as a Bronco. His stats weren’t awful — he completed 34 of 54 passes for 389 yards — but he threw two interceptions and led the Broncos on just one scoring drive.
So did St. Louis provide the blueprint to beat Denver? Perhaps. But don’t ask defensive tackle Jared Odrick. He didn’t watch the game.
Instead, he was in Randolph, Utah, a speck of a town not far from the Wyoming border, preparing for the other challenge awaiting the Dolphins: the thin Denver air.
Odrick’s itinerary during his long weekend away: “Shoot coyote, eat good food, went up into the mountains, hiked a little bit.”
And he worked out at (or at least near) the top of the world. Randolph sits nearly 6,300 feet above sea level.
“You feel it,” Odrick said. “It’s a difference walking up the stairs. Your mouth is a little bit drier. But it’s not that big of deal. It’s really not.”
Perhaps, but Manning’s dominance at home as a member of the Broncos suggests otherwise. Denver has won 19 of 21 regular-season home games since signing Manning in 2012.
While Manning has struggled as of late — throwing two interceptions in each of his past three games — he still ranks third in passer rating (107.1) this season. And his eventual Hall of Fame induction is a foregone conclusion.
Earlier this season, Manning passed Brett Favre for first on the NFL’s all-time touchdown list. He enters Sunday’s game with 521.
He also has two of the three most prolific seasons in NFL history, throwing a league-record 55 touchdowns last season and 49 in 2004.
By comparison, Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill has 53 touchdowns — total — in his three-year NFL career.