DENVER – If Peyton Manning is on his final victory lap, or even if he thinks it's possible he might be very close to the end, he's not letting on.
He might not even know. ESPN reported Sunday that a physical exam in March will determine the Broncos quarterback's future. If his surgically-repaired neck is healthy, he'll play on. If it isn't, he will have a tough decision.
That's all common logic, and there's no indication that he won't pass that test. If he knew his neck was in that bad of shape and he will be retiring because of it, he probably wouldn't be playing now. But it's a reminder that the 37-year-old is not going to be chasing championships forever. As he said this week, "the light is at the end of the tunnel for me — no question."
If any of that was on his mind after Denver's 24-17 win in an AFC divisional playoff game against San Diego to advance to the AFC championship game against New England, he wasn't going to say.
"It's really not, what's weighing on my mind is how soon I can get a Bud Light in my mouth after this win," Manning said.
After the laughter died down, he gave an insight into his mindset.
"That is ... even the Patriots is ahead, and that question (about his neck) is way far ahead, so I am not there," Manning said. "I've really been, this team has been a one week at a time season. For all we've been through, losing our coach and losing different guys to injuries, that approach has served us well. I think we need to keep that approach from here on out."
Most likely, the ESPN report is much ado about nothing. Manning is coming off what is likely the greatest single season in NFL history, and will win a fifth MVP award. He's not showing any physical limitations. ESPN said in a follow-up story that the exam is just like one he had and passed after the 2012 season.
But even if his neck is never an issue, how much time does Manning have left? Two years? Three? Not many quarterbacks keep going into their 40s. And even a healthy Manning, who has been derided for his lack of playoff success, knows that opportunities like he has this season are rare. He could play for 10 more years and never get back to the NFL's final four. Last year the Broncos were the first seed in the AFC and lost in its first playoff game to Baltimore.
You just never know.
"There are a lot of teams that had disappointing losses last year – Atlanta and Washington – and everybody says in that locker room, 'Hey, let's get back next year,' and it just doesn't happen," Manning said. "It's hard to get back. You have injuries, things happen, and so I talked to the team last night and said, 'You need to be commended for getting back to this point.'"
The Broncos couldn't even have it easy on Sunday. They took a 17-0 lead, but in the fourth quarter San Diego suddenly turned it on, and after an onside kick and a field goal the Chargers trailed just 24-17 with 3:53 left.
Manning made two huge plays on the final drive. Last year, the Broncos were content to keep the ball on the ground and run clock, and were criticized after Baltimore's miracle win for being too conservative. This time, Manning hit Julius Thomas for 21 yards on third-and-17. Then he hit Thomas for 9 yards on third-and-6. After one more rushing first down, it was over.
On the third and 17, Manning had to stand in against the pass rush long enough for Thomas to get open. Cornerback Champ Bailey was asked what impressed him most about the throw.
"The pressure," Bailey said. "He had so much pressure in his face."
Bailey was talking about the Chargers' defenders, but he could have been speaking about Manning in general.
Manning's win improved his playoff record to 10-11. He has won a Super Bowl before, but for some reason that rarely gets mentioned. But every failure lives on in the many ill-conceived criticisms of one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. Every playoff game becomes a referendum of his career and legacy. That's wrong, but it surely won't die down this week.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is coming to Denver for the AFC championship game. This is it for Manning. A Broncos loss and some people will never let him live it down when they discuss him and Brady, the quarterback he'll always be compared to. A victory erases a lot of the complaints about his playoff success (unless the Broncos lose the Super Bowl, and then there will be something new to criticize him about).
Manning wanted to enjoy the Chargers win for a few hours. One week at a time, right? Early in his post-game press conference he said he'd discuss the colossal matchup with the Patriots, and the inevitable Brady questions, on Wednesday during his mid-week availability. But he relented when "Brady-Manning XV" was brought up again.
"Tom Brady has just been an outstanding quarterback for such a long time, but the game next week is the Broncos versus the Patriots," Manning said. "I know there will be some individual matchups that will get headlines, but it will be a battle between two good teams. Teams that have been through a lot, that have overcome a lot to get to this point, and that's where my focus will be – trying to help the Broncos get a win against the Patriots."
The Broncos better win this week. Manning will never hear the end of it if they don't. No matter how many years he has left in the NFL.
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