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FOXBOROUGH — Patriots coach Bill Belichick said he kept a close watch on what was perhaps the biggest story of the NFL offseason — former Colts quarterback Peyton Manning hitting the open market as a free agent, and touching off a frenzy among several teams for his services.
“Definitely interested to see where [he ended up],’’ Belichick said during his Monday news conference at Gillette Stadium following Sunday’s 52-28 victory at Buffalo. “He’s been an impact player for whatever team he’s on, so I’m not saying that I’m real excited about having to face him again. But you’ve got to play somebody.
“Everybody in this league is good.’’
When the Patriots host the Broncos Sunday, they will renew acquaintances with their old nemesis, who wound up in Denver after a courtship that also involved Miami, Arizona, and Tennessee.
Manning parted ways with the Colts as part of a youth movement in Indianapolis, which selected Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the No. 1 pick of the 2012 draft. Manning has the Broncos at 2-2, having completed 64.7 percent of his passes for 1,162 yards and 8 touchdowns, with 3 interceptions.
“He’s one of those guys who you have to put in a little extra time to be able to just hold your own, let alone play well,’’ said cornerback Devin McCourty, who recorded a pair of interceptions against the Bills, the second two-interception game of his career. “You’ve really got to put the time in.”
Belichick said he wasn’t surprised in the least to see Manning back in the league after spending a year away from the game as he recuperated from a series of operations on his neck.
“He’s a pretty smart guy, he’s got a lot of experience, he’s got good skills,’’ Belichick said. “There have been a number of other players that have missed a year with an injury, whatever it happened to be, come back the next year and been able to play at a high level.
“It’s about what I would have expected him to be at.’’
McCourty echoed his coach’s sentiment.
“I don’t think many guys are surprised by what he does,’’ McCourty said. “You know he’s a great player and you know he’s a competitor.
“In my short time in the league, everything I’ve looked at on him has been great performances and great leadership and I think it’s incredible what he’s been able to do to overcome that injury.
“I’m really not surprised by him being one of those guys that could do it.’’
Koppen returns, too
Manning won’t be the only familiar face in a Broncos uniform. He will be joined by former Patriots center Dan Koppen, who served as Tom Brady’s batterymate for the last nine seasons. It appears Koppen will do the honors for Manning this Sunday.
The 6-foot-2-inch, 300-pound Koppen, who was New England’s fifth-round pick in the 2003 draft out of Boston College, started 120 games over nine seasons before he suffered a fractured left ankle in the first half of last year’s season-opening victory at Miami.
He missed the remainder of the season, including the Patriots’ Super Bowl appearance, and wound up being released Aug. 31.
The Broncos signed Koppen last month as a free agent and threw him into the breach during last Sunday’s 37-6 victory over the Raiders when starter J.D. Walton fractured and dislocated his left ankle on the final play of the second quarter.
“I thought he did very well,’’ Denver coach John Fox said. “One thing about NFL football is the tape is never as good as you think and it’s never as bad as you think. We still have a lot of improving to do.
“Dan, with more reps in practice and a better understanding of our offense, he’s capable of playing better, but he did a good job, kind of on-the-job training, just getting thrown out there quickly when J.D. went down. Considering all that, he did an excellent job.”
Walton was placed on injured reserve Monday, likely thrusting Koppen, 33, into a starting role.
“He had a similar injury as J.D. just had,’’ Fox said. “That’s why he wasn’t with a team. We felt really good about the addition of him because he brings top-notch experience at that position. We had the opportunity to sign him and we did and I’m glad we did.”
Patriots tackle Nate Solder broke into a laugh when asked if it would be as strange seeing Koppen in a Broncos uniform as it would be to see Manning in one.
“You know, it’s kind of the way this league is, people change and move,” Solder said. “I wonder if it’s more shocking for him than it [will be] for us.’’
Confidence not shaken
Although Stephen Gostkowski missed field goal attempts of 49 and 42 yards in the second quarter before making a 30-yarder in the fourth Sunday, Belichick said his confidence in his kicker hasn’t eroded. “That’s an operation that involves more than one guy,’’ Belichick said. “It’s not a pitcher taking the ball on the mound or a golfer teeing a ball up. It’s a snap, a hold, a kick, a whole process. We’ll keep working hard at it. I have a lot of confidence in those players — [long snapper] Danny [Aiken], [punter] Zoltan [Mesko], Steve. We’ve made a lot of them. Unfortunately, we’ve missed a few, but we’ll keep working at it and try to improve it — coach it better and execute better.’’ . . . Belichick was caught off-guard when asked for his thoughts about first-year Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano, who has been diagnosed with leukemia. “No, I didn’t know that,’’ said Belichick. “I feel for him on that one. I don’t know anything about it.’’ Pagano will miss at least the next 4-6 weeks while undergoing chemotherapy and will be replaced by offensive coordinator Bruce Arians on an interim basis . . . Belichick had little to offer on the return of the NFL’s regular officials. “We just really need to focus as a team on doing the best we can do,’’ he said. “Whoever else’s job it is to do something else, we can’t worry about it. We’ll just do our job and see if we can do it better.’’
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.