Peyton Manning no longer has a serious pain in his neck and thus is again a serious pain in the neck for defensive coordinators throughout the NFL. If he is not the league’s Most Valuable Player this year, it’s difficult to think of who else that might be.
When Manning signed with the Denver Broncos in the offseason, many thought he had lost his mind. Why he was risking life and limb at 36 after a year off and four neck operations was unfathomable to civilians who simply don’t think the way superior athletes do. At the time, Manning insisted he would be fine and that the Broncos “are just a great fit.’’
As things have turned out, if the fit was any better it would have to have been tailored by Ermenegildo Zegna.
With three weeks to play, Manning has whip-sawed the Broncos to an unlikely 10-3 record, driving them to eight straight victories in the same way he once pushed the Indianapolis Colts to exceed themselves year after year.
This is the 12th season in which he has led a team to 10 or more wins and he’s done it the way he always did — with a mind that works faster than a mainframe computer and an arm that, while weakened some from his injuries, remains both accurate and deadly efficient.
For the 14th season, he has passed for more than 3,500 yards already and his 30 touchdowns are the most in the AFC. This has all been done while learning a new playbook and, more importantly, adjusting to a roster of new faces. That adjustment took five games, three of which were lost.
But midway through the third quarter of what would become a 31-21 defeat to the New England Patriots, Manning suddenly found himself, and his young receivers finally got onto the same page as their quarterback.
Down 31-7, Manning led a furious rally that fell short, but which had the Patriots back on their heels and fearing they had seen this all before. Since that game, Denver has won eight in a row, ran away with the AFC West title and is preparing for a showdown this weekend with the Baltimore Ravens that is a pivotal game for both.
After that game, Manning’s Broncos close out the regular season at home against Cleveland and Kansas City, both highly winnable games. If he stays true to form and his team does what he tells them, it would seem the worst Manning’s Broncos should finish is 12-4 and they very well could win out.
If that is not an MVP year, what is? To date, Manning has produced the second-most passing yards since 1960 for a player on a new team and transformed the Broncos from second-tier also-ran to Super Bowl contender. His transition from a career Colt to a frisky Bronco has taken less than four months, a remarkable feat at any age, but at 36, almost unbelievable.
But then, what about Peyton Manning is not unbelievable?
After passing for 310 yards in a 26-13 win over the Raiders last Thursday night, Manning admitted the thought of going home to New Orleans to play in the Super Bowl in February has crossed his mind a time or two. The main reason for that is not that he is getting ahead of himself but rather that he is a realist.
“I know I don’t have 15 years left to play football,’’ he said. “I feel that sense of urgency.’’
So do defenses trying to stop him.
It is a familiar story for Peyton Manning but one that hasn’t existed in Denver since John Elway retired. No one there has forgotten Elway of course, but no one remembers anymore that No. 18 once belonged to Frank Tripucka, the franchise’s first quarterback.
No. 18 in orange now belongs to Peyton Manning, and so do the Broncos. In a matter of months he’s gone from a man whose career seemed at best a question mark to not merely the most valuable football player in Denver but the most valuable player in football … again.
Ron Borges is a columnist for the Boston Herald and Pro Football Weekly.