While the Denver Broncos are flying high and leading the AFC West after consecutive wins, they know that a single event could ruin everything.
Denver can't afford a serious injury to quarterback Peyton Manning.
The future Hall of Famer has re-established his place among the game's elite quarterbacks and has turned the Denver offense into one of the league's most potent almost overnight. All the while, the defense is finally functioning as it was intended, conceding yardage but forcing errant throws and mistakes to complement the up-tempo, Manning-paced offense.
But when Manning's right thumb slammed against the helmet of the New Orleans Saints' Martez Wilson late Sunday night, the Broncos had a brief glimpse into the abyss.
"I got nervous, but it didn't look like it was anything too serious," Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley said.
Only Manning's thumbnail was damaged, and the quarterback didn't miss a play. After Manning missed his next two passes to end the first half, he completed 10 of his first 11 throws after halftime, and Denver cruised to a 34-14 win.
The Broncos (4-3) climbed over .500 and into sole possession of first place in the division for the first time this year.
"(For) quarterbacks, probably the biggest fear is always the thumb on the helmet of the defensive lineman," Manning said. "Mostly the nail, the fingernail. It'll be sore (Monday), but I'm probably a little bit lucky."
Wilson's helmet appeared to glance off the lower bar of Manning's facemask on the collision, which wasn't enough to prevent a 23-yard completion to wide receiver Eric Decker near the left sideline. The Broncos ran the ball on their next four plays, and Manning went to the sideline to have his thumb examined by team medical personnel during the two-minute warning shortly after the hit.
The collision not only made the Broncos edgy, but it drew their ire -- and it could lead to a conversation with the NFL office.
"I'm not really able to comment on what we turn in to the league or what we don't, but that's one we'll look at closely," Broncos coach John Fox said.
He could hardly be blamed for hypersensitivity where Manning and risks to the veteran's health are concerned. Manning is on pace to shatter franchise single-season records in completions, completion percentage, yardage, touchdown passes and passer rating. The offense finally achieved harmonious balance against the Saints, turning in the franchise's first game with 300 passing yards and 200 rushing yards since a 49-21 win over the Philadelphia Eagles on Oct. 30, 2005.
In the last six quarters, the Broncos have outscored the Chargers and Saints 69-14, outgained them 747 yards to 381, and averaged twice as many yards per play -- 7.6 to 3.8. It's the best all-around play the Broncos have seen since the 2005 season -- the last time they went as far as the AFC Championship Game.
But if a bone in Manning's thumb had borne the brunt of Wilson's hit, and not his nail, the Broncos' growing dreams would have been blown away. The Colts learned last year that replacing Manning on short notice was virtually impossible, as they finished 2-14. The Broncos hope they don't have to find out.