DENVER – When Peyton Manning talks about his football mortality, acknowledging his physical shortcomings and scoffing at the notion that he plays as he did in his prime, it all makes perfect sense. He is 36, coming off four neck surgeries and a lost 2011 season, and he's struggling to get in sync with new teammates in a new city as the clock on his career mercilessly ticks away.
Yet while I may have politely nodded in agreement Sunday night as Manning, in a hallway outside the Denver Broncos' locker room at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, told me, "I can't do the same things I used to do, and I'm learning to adjust," my head hurt from the twisted logic.
After joining 76,832 fans and a national TV audience in watching Manning toy with the New Orleans Saints in the Broncos' 34-14 victory, it's tough to reconcile the decline of a once-mighty quarterback with the magnificent mastery we're witnessing on a weekly basis.
In a virtuoso performance that left Denver (4-3) alone in first place in the AFC West and with a shockingly plausible path to a first-round playoff bye. The old, broken-down gunslinger showed the rest of the football world that he'll find a way to get by without his fastball.
In this case, getting by could consist of a record-extending fifth NFL Most Valuable Player award and a viable shot at a third Super Bowl appearance.
Does that sound crazy? After Sunday night, it shouldn't. Manning put on a mistake-free clinic against the Saints' sorry defense, completing 22 of 30 passes for 305 yards and three touchdowns, but it's not as if his effort was an anomaly. This was Manning's fifth consecutive 300-yard passing game, tying the longest stretch of his career (achieved at the start of the 2009 season, toward the end of his legendary run with the Indianapolis Colts), and he's currently leading the NFL with a 109.0 passer rating.
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With all due respect to two-time MVP Tom Brady, reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt or any other candidate you can name, Manning should be considered the MVP favorite as we near the midpoint of the season.
Scarily, the Broncos are starting to look like a complete team at a time when their schedule turns softer than homemade pumpkin soup. Beginning next Sunday against the Bengals in Cincinnati, Denver plays eight of its next nine games against teams that currently have losing records, the lone exception a Dec. 16 road game against the Ravens.
Thirteen days after storming back from a 24-0 halftime deficit to score a stunning road victory over the San Diego Chargers, the Broncos took command of the AFC West. The Chargers (3-4) suffered an unconscionable, 7-6 defeat to the Cleveland Browns to fall into a second-place tie with the Oakland Raiders (3-4), who defeated the cellar-dwelling Kansas City Chiefs (1-6). If you see any of these three teams making a run at the Broncos, assuming Manning stays healthy, please report to your nearest psychiatric facility.
Realistically, Manning may be competing with Brady, the longtime rival who bested him once more in the New England Patriots' 31-21 victory over the Broncos three weeks ago, for shotgun status beside the 6-1 Houston Texans for AFC supremacy.
That may be a bit premature, but Manning was that good on Sunday, and his improvement curve seems to be pointing sharply upward and aimed a mile high.
"I can see it being Denver and Houston in the end for the AFC," said Scott Shanle, the veteran Saints' linebacker who skipped Sunday's game with a staph infection, as he walked off the field. "Peyton is just unbelievable. This is his offense, and he has total command of it. If you put Colts uniforms on those guys and watched them [Sunday] night, you'd think it was one of his great Indy teams, and that's scary."
This is the kind of hyperbolic statement that's guaranteed to make Manning's pulse rise, and not because of some contrived attempt at false modesty. When I told him Sunday's performance, on the heels of his Monday night heroics in San Diego, was sure to generate all kinds of conversation about his return to greatness, he immediately provided a convincing counter-argument.
"I don't agree with that," Manning said of the Peyton's Back narrative. "I feel like I'm a different player, in different circumstances. I've learned a lot about myself and my body – what I can and can't do. Somebody asked me if I was doing the same things I did in 2004. I'm like, 'Are you kidding?' That was a different team, and we were on a crazy level. There's no comparison."
One point Manning made was that he and the Broncos' receivers, with the exception of former Colts Brandon Stokley and Jacob Tamme, are still developing the chemistry and familiarity that made Indy's offense so successful. Again, on a logical level, this is easy to understand. However, the crash course that Manning is administering to starting wideouts Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker seems to be effective, at least to those of us who lack the quarterback's exacting eye.
"I really enjoy working with the young receivers," Manning said. "We're learning each other and I'm still feeling my way out, but they're buying in."
Exhibit A: Manning's one-yard touchdown pass to Thomas with 9:30 left in the third quarter, which gave the Broncos a 24-7 lead. The play was installed weeks ago by Manning in practice: Thomas, lined up to the left, begins what appears to be a fade route, then abruptly breaks it off and runs a quick out to the side of the end zone.
"When we first ran it in practice, it was against [future Hall of Fame cornerback] Champ Bailey," Thomas recalled. "He said, 'Man, that's an unstoppable route.' When I hear Champ Bailey say that, it gets my attention."
Unsurprisingly, Saints cornerback Johnny Patrick couldn't stop it. "Hey," Thomas said, "we had one play that worked that [Manning] put in [during] this game."
Thomas' touchdown continued a season-long trend of the Broncos' offense coming out strong in the third quarter. After rallies that were too-little, too-late in defeats to the Falcons, Texans and Patriots, Manning came through in San Diego, pulling off a comeback that tied for the fourth-largest in NFL history.
Denver's executive vice president of football operations John Elway (like Manning, a member of the very small Greatest Quarterbacks Of All-time bridge club) thought about paying a visit to the visitors' locker room at Qualcomm Stadium with the Broncos trailing 24-0 at halftime.
"I didn't go down there," Elway explained. "I was afraid of what I would say."
It turned out Manning had the situation under control, commanding the room with a purposeful glare and a simple message.
"He walked around the room and talked to us, one by one, very calm and very sure about what we needed to do," Thomas recalled. "He said, 'We're cool. We can come back. Just chill and play your game.' And when he's the one talking, you've gotta listen."
Said Manning: "I guess I've been there before. You try to be calm. You try to encourage them. If you can score on that first series of the second half, that sure does open some eyes. If you go three-and-out, it's really tough. But I think the fact that we were there at the end of those other games and had a chance at the end, guys knew that we were capable of it."
It remains to be seen exactly how much Manning is capable of, and how much past his prime he really is.
"Each week now, he's progressing and still getting better," Elway said. "The key thing is, his accuracy's still there. The strength's gonna come back, and his arm's just gonna keep getting stronger. It's getting exciting."
If Manning can simultaneously heal and deal, brace yourself for a rocky mountain high that makes Tebow Time look like nap time.
In the meantime, applaud Manning for his candor and vulnerability.
In August, after making his preseason debut, Manning detailed his long journey back from his career-threatening injury and admitted how emotional he'd been about making his return to the field after 19 months.
Seven weeks ago, after the Broncos' season-opening victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, he still spoke of his physical limitations as though they might be permanent.
On Sunday, a few minutes before we talked in the hallway, he told reporters during a news conference, "I've had an injury. I'm a different player coming off the injury – I'm on a different team – and so, I'm just working on kind of finding my way, and our team is finding our way."
Could Manning's search to reconnect with his former self take the Broncos all the way to New Orleans in early February?
On a purely logical level, it's tough to discount the possibility.
1. When I talked to Falcons wideout Roddy White as he headed to the Philadelphia airport after Atlanta's 30-17 victory over the Eagles, he thanked the Big Man (no, not Andy Reid) for making "Frankenstorm" a non-factor. "God did a good job of just keeping it away and giving us an opportunity to play some good football," White said, laughing, after the Falcons improved to 7-0.
2. Even in the wake of another disappointing defeat, I still think Reid should stick with Michael Vick – but when the Eagles' quarterback says his embattled coach is "obviously" thinking about a switch to rookie Nick Foles, it's fair to start speculating about which teams might try to sign the 32-year-old Vick as a free agent after the season.
3. The Jets, a team on the decline, got destroyed by the Dolphins, a team on the rise, and kept it classy afterward, with New York cornerback Antonio Cromartie calling Miami running back Reggie Bush a "punk." My first thought: Why couldn't this have happened during a Keeping Up With The Kardashians episode?
4. Ron Rivera is a very good coach who can't catch a break, and he really could have used one upon his return to Chicago on Sunday. But the Panthers, partly as a result of wideout Steve Smith's untimely slip, suffered a 23-22 defeat to the Bears on Robbie Gould's 41-yard field goal as time expired – and Carolina (1-6) is now 1-10 in games decided by seven points or fewer during the second-year coach's tenure.
5. Think the replacement refs would've had the guts to overturn that Dez Bryant touchdown catch with 10 seconds remaining that seemed to give the Cowboys a dramatic victory over the Giants – and feel the wrath of 94,067 fans at Cowboys Stadium? Surrrrreeee they would have.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. That this dorky soccer dad has also become a "hockey" dad – and how cool it was to watch my little Devil be part of so much collective magic this season.
2. That the Chargers couldn't manage a touchdown – or, with the game on the line, a third field goal – in their defeat to the Browns. You're going to hear a lot in the coming days about Norv Turner's job security – and, for that matter, general manager A.J. Smith's – but I'm not convinced that the head coach, a gifted play-caller with a nice track record in that department, is dealing from strength. Specifically, I wonder whether something is wrong with quarterback Philip Rivers' throwing arm, and I know some league executives and coaches who have similar suspicions. Last year, when Rivers suffered a huge dropoff in play from previous seasons, I thought he might be concealing an injury, but the quarterback assured me he wasn't. Arm strength was never Rivers' forte, but even with an unorthodox delivery he found a way to get the ball out quickly and effectively. Is his arm shot, or semi-shot? I hope not, but as the Chargers' once-promising season careens toward ugliness, the situation bears watching. In the meantime, with apologies to the team's congenial public relations director, Bill Johnston, Chargers fans are going to require something a bit stronger than a "chill pill" after Sunday's desultory defeat.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
I understand the novelty appeal of throwback uniforms, as well as the potential marketing advantages, and I thus try to avoid being too much of a fashionista when assessing the way teams suit up. That said, the atrocious getups worn by the Pittsburgh Steelers in Sunday's 27-12 victory over the Washington Redskins at Heinz Field were too unseemly to ignore. Their black-and-yellow-striped shirts with the squared numbers, matching tall socks, yellow cleats and short, taupe-colored uniform pants (or maybe they were white pants, and the Steelers' players decide to emulate the personal-hygiene habits of former Broncos guard Mark Schlereth) conspired to torment the viewer. It was terrible on TV and downright terrifying in hi-def. Put it this way: I watched part of the game with several hung-over men and women, some of whom were drinking Bloody Marys, and I almost brought out a bucket in case one of them was overcome by uncontrollable nausea.
Thankfully, nobody had to throw up from watching the throwbacks, but seeing the Steelers in their Sunday worst still strained the eyes. This was especially true of Ben Roethlisberger, who accessorized the outrageous outfit with a black fanny pack. I like to think Big Ben was being over-the-top ironic. If so, nice touch. Oh well – there's now one more entry on my Things We Shouldn't Bring Back From 1934 list, which also includes: The Dust Bowl, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow's killing spree and Germany's Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring.
TEXT/DIRECT MESSAGE/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"I still believe!!!"
– Text Sunday evening from Michael Vick.
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