DENVER -- Peyton Manning shuffled to the podium Wednesday at the Broncos posh practice facility in Englewood, Colorado, with an orange and blue visor. He looked like the guy you’ve seen all these many years, save for a few less strands of hair.
But there was something missing this time: that air of cockiness that Manning has always had, although not always delivered on, at least this time of year.
See, the Manning before us knows what we know: that the countless surgeries on his neck have sapped him of that golden right arm that has recorded more passing yards than any quarterback in NFL history. And you could hear that when the Broncos quarterback was asked if he could have ever envisioned this scenario, playing in the AFC Championship, during that stretch when he was rehabbing from his foot injury and watching Brock Osweiler go 5-2 in his place.
“I really tried to kind of take it one week at a time, stay in the moment and try not to get too far ahead,“ he said. “Try not to assume anything, any type of finality or any type of, 'Hey, this is what’s going to happen in three weeks or four weeks.’ I’ve truly kind of followed the old cliche, 'one week at a time’ and tried to stay patient, and I think that’s served me well, because there’s no question a lot has happened this season that’s been very different for me than any other season I’ve played in 18 years.”
Manning was a spectator when the Broncos ended the Patriots' shot at an undefeated season back in week 12, joking that he watched the game with another injured veteran— DeMarcus Ware—in the equipment room, noting that Ware is “a big time second-guesser” and “the hot dogs aren’t bad,” but “I’d much prefer to be on the playing field.”
There was no guarantee that would happen, and, in many ways, the Broncos are between a rock and a hard place, turning to the surefire Hall of Famer even if he can’t run the offense that head coach Gary Kubiak favors. Yes, Manning guided the Broncos to a Divisional Round playoff win over the Steelers last weekend, but he did so without throwing a touchdown pass. In fact, Brady has thrown more TDs in Denver this year (3) than Manning himself (1).
At 39, Manning has become a secondary piece, rather than the focal point he was for every season prior. A game manager, dare I say? But not in the mold of KC’s Alex Smith. Rather, this is a player that makes Kubiak cringe somewhere in that stoic body, realizing that every throw is now an adventure.
“You have to understand situations,” Kubiak told me. “You have to, hopefully, get your guys in the best possible situations on game day to be successful. I think that comes with playing the position. There are certain games that get to a certain point where managing the football game the right way is the key to win.”
Manning’s brain is now his best weapon, but that arm will fail him again. And Manning knows it. He's just hopeful that he can summon enough in the big moments to get the Broncos to the Super Bowl.
“At some point in the critical drive in the fourth quarter or on a goal line stand, somebody on defense, on offense or on special teams has stepped up and made a play. That’s kind of what has gotten us to this point and that is what you have to have, certainly in the postseason, and for any chance for us to have to play against these guys.”