That gimpy ankle is still banged up, the snarky cold weather criticism still rings in his ears and his support crew is ravaged by injuries. Still, Peyton Manning sees nothing but opportunity as he heads into what could be the Denver Broncos' biggest game of the season on Sunday.
The 9-2 Broncos could have used some positive vibes after coming off Sunday's dispiriting surrender of a 24-point lead in a 34-31 overtime loss to the New England Patriots. Instead, their preparations for an AFC West showdown with the Kansas City Chiefs at a raucous Arrowhead Stadium have been hamstrung by a series of key injuries, including primary running back Knowshon Moreno (ankle) and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (shoulder).
Manning says the collection of setbacks can have a bolstering effect on a team that remains Las Vegas' favorite to win it all.
"How do we respond?" Manning said to reporters this week. "That is the challenge you want, how do we respond coming off last week's game?"
The answer may go a long way toward shaping the Broncos' postseason outcome. Manning was protected admirably and stayed clear of the sack-happy duo of Tamba Hali and Justin Houston in a 27-17 Broncos win at home two weeks ago. But the Chiefs can regain control of the division with a victory in front of their ear-splitting Arrowhead followers. Failure to win the division would mean the Broncos could be seeded no higher than fifth in the AFC playoffs, even with a potential 13-3 record.
"The key is kind of how you finish," Manning said. "How you finish a game, how you finish a play and how you finish the [season]. It doesn’t get much tougher than going on the road, playing a division team in what I have always said is one of the loudest places to play. [The Chiefs] got their backs against the wall after losing two in a row. They will be motivated and they have got a lot of pride as well."
Back in Week 11, Manning countered the Chiefs' marauding defensive line with quick passes, a policy he is likely to replicate Sunday. The oncoming horde may not be quite as damaging this time though, with Houston likely to sit out after suffering a dislocated elbow and Hali striving to recover from an injured ankle.
The Chiefs have built much of this season’s success on the defensive aggression of that pair, yet will not be short on motivation even if they are absent. As well as the practical implications the contest can have on the season, Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of the death of Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, who killed his girlfriend before turning a gun on himself in the Chiefs' training facility parking lot.
The Belcher tragedy was the low point of a 2-14 season, making the Chiefs' revival this campaign even more extraordinary.Head coach Andy Reid has turned around a dispirited squad and has taken it on a journey that is already better than anyone hoped for.
However, a defense that gave up a league-best 12 points per game over the first nine weeks has conceded 68 in its past two outings. If Denver and Manning worked them out two weeks ago, they can certainly do it again.
Manning, however, was quick to insist that the Broncos' previous win offers no advantage since the Chiefs could present an entirely different defensive setup this time around.
"It doesn’t get any easier," Manning said.
Nor you suspect, does he want it to.
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