ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There is never a time when the Denver Broncos want to see quarterback Peyton Manning hobbling around the field, struggling to put weight on his woebegone ankles.
Even so, there probably wasn't a worse time for the team to receive its latest scare than Sunday in the final moments of a 28-20 win over the San Diego Chargers, with Denver's toughest three-game stretch in years looming.
An MRI examination on Monday revealed no further damage beyond the high ankle sprains Manning suffered in October, so the Broncos could breathe a little easier.
"I'm pretty sore," Manning said. "They kind of got me twice in that lower area. I felt better coming into the game after the bye week, but I'm pretty sore."
With two games against the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs bracketing a trip to face the New England Patriots in the next 21 days, the Broncos are at the juncture in which they need a healthy Manning most. Now they must monitor -- and perhaps limit -- his practice work to allow him to rest and be ready for games in that span.
"He'll get an occasional day off here and there. We'll decide when that makes sense or not," interim head coach Jack Del Rio said. "But he'll definitely play this week. He's ready to roll, and that was great news."
Manning struggled to his feet after being hit by San Diego defensive end Corey Liuget with 1:44 remaining. On the play, the Broncos quarterback fired a 9-yard pass to wide receier Demaryius Thomas that appeared to clinch the win, but as he struggled to arise, team medical personnel raced onto the field, necessitating the automatic issuance of a timeout.
That stopped the clock, allowing San Diego to preserve its final timeout, and prevented the Broncos from simply kneeling out the final 104 seconds. Manning, who was on his knees awaiting treatment, quickly got to his feet and promptly hobbled over to referee Tony Corrente for an explanation.
"It killed me that we took the timeout," Manning said. "I saw them call timeout, so I was going to take a moment to kind of get it together and then they stuck us with a timeout. I was arguing with the ref over that."
Del Rio said the Broncos asked the NFL to review the hit on Manning to determine if Liuget was illegally targeting the quarterbacks ankles.
Manning stayed in for two more handoffs and two kneel-downs that wound the game to its conclusion, but the sight of Manning on the ground and unable to rise was enough to rattle the entire team.
"Oh, of course I hold my breath," defensive end Shaun Phillips said. "He's our breadwinner."
Manning is more than that. He is the key to the Broncos' title hopes. And while he is banged up and bruised, he remains unbroken -- as is the 8-1 Broncos' quest to make their first Super Bowl in 15 years. That journey faces its sternest test in the next three weeks, with games against foes that are a combined 27-2.
With first place in the AFC West and playoff seeding on the line, these are games the Broncos can't afford to turn over to an inexperienced understudy like Brock Osweiler, the team's designated quarterback-in-waiting. Osweiler has thrown just seven regular-season passes in his two-year career.
Osweiler likely will see more practice repetitions as the Broncos come to grips with the fact that their aspirations are just one hit away from being in dire jeopardy.