ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Peyton Manning doesn't look old. There are a few more lines around his eyes than when he broke into the NFL, but you have to look close to find them.
On the field he looks the same, maybe even better than a year ago. On the first day of Denver Broncos training camp, his delivery looked strong. The throws had good velocity. He almost won another MVP award last year, and he hasn't taken an obvious step back.
But everyone in the organization, and the city of Denver for that matter, knows he's 37 and they understand what that means.
The Denver Broncos' window to win a championship is wide open – for this year. They had the best regular-season record in the AFC last year, and are the favorites to win the conference this year. But that championship window will close very soon.
Seattle, San Francisco, Carolina, Washington and Indianapolis have a decade or more to build contenders around their young franchise quarterbacks. Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers is only 29. Tom Brady will turn 36 soon, but unlike the Broncos, he and the Patriots have won championships this century.
Every team has pressure coming into this season, to varying degrees. But the Broncos face more pressure to win this year than any other team.
Does Manning have three years before he suffers the inevitable decline? Two? Will he be just as good this year as he was in 2012? It's impossible to predict. Usually when great players hit the wall, there's little warning.
Manning relies on his knowledge and feel for the game better than anyone, he is masterful at not taking hits, and he has a great supporting cast on offense this year. Those things will help hold off father time. But he understands the urgency, because he doesn't know how long he has left.
"I don't have a set number," Manning said after Thursday's practice, when asked how many more years he thought he could play at a high level. "I'm all in on 2013."
That's why there is excitement among Broncos fans for this season, but it's excitement mixed with a touch of desperation. That's why there were more than 3,000 fans for the opening practice, and some started lining up at about midnight for it. This is the year for the Broncos, because it has to be the year.
"We definitely have a lot of expectations: Super Bowl or bust, for the most part," offensive tackle Ryan Clady said earlier this month. "It’s a lot of pressure, unlike last year where we kind of just rolled in and tried to get things together. We’re trying to know what we have to get done at this point."
The track record of quarterbacks getting better at age 37 or 38 is just about non-existent (although Brett Favre played a heck of a season at 40, so it is possible). John Elway, Dan Marino, Joe Montana and Steve Young retired at age 38. Those who are still playing at age 37 and beyond are almost always in significant decline. That's just life.
Manning's salary is guaranteed this season and next season, and he is signed through 2016. Nobody knows what Manning will be in 2014 and beyond, but the signs are good right now.
"I certainly feel more comfortable," Manning said. "I do feel better."
"I think he looks great," receiver Demaryius Thomas said. "I can't tell a difference, to tell you the truth."
Manning can lead this team to a Super Bowl, but that won't be the case forever. His inability to throw deep downfield in frigid conditions in last season's playoff loss against the Ravens was a scary reminder that he is mortal, and a reminder to the Broncos they're in win-now mode.
The 49ers, Seahawks, Packers and most other contenders will likely come back next year and still feel great about their chances of making the Super Bowl. That can't be said right now about Denver. At some point Manning is going to fall off and the Broncos will start over. The Broncos just hope they have another Lombardi Trophy when that happens.
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