When Peyton Manning signed with the Denver Broncos 21 months ago, he was a fallen star with an uncertain future. Coming off four neck surgeries and coming to grips with the possibility that his career would end prematurely, Manning seemed to be coaxing every last throw out of his once-golden right arm.
As it turned out, he was simultaneously getting well and, against all odds, getting better: Two seasons into his awe-inspiring career renaissance and three months shy of his 38th birthday, Manning is slinging the ball with peerless precision.
You've got to hand it to him -- and by it, I mean a record fifth NFL MVP trophy, which he'll almost certainly seize after completing one of the great regular seasons in league history.
"Absolutely," Broncos executive vice president John Elway said Sunday evening, in reference to Manning's impending coronation.
"Let's do that," agreed coach John Fox after the Broncos (12-3) crushed the Houston Texans, 37-13, to move within a final-week victory over the Oakland Raiders of clinching the AFC's top playoff seed for the second consecutive season.
Elway and Fox are obviously biased, but they're not wrong: Manning, despite the challenges posed by relocation and rehabilitation, has been the best player in football during his two seasons in Denver. Decreeing him most valuable is like calling Justine Sacco the most clueless PR executive of 2013.
Realistically, Manning, who became the league's only four-time MVP during his phenomenal stretch with the Indianapolis Colts, could already have nabbed the award once as a Bronco. Only an extraordinary 2012 season by Adrian Peterson kept Manning from capturing his fifth MVP; this year, of course, Manning is the one putting up freakish numbers.
On Sunday, Manning completed 32 of 51 passes for 400 yards and four touchdowns, breaking Tom Brady's single-season record with his 51st scoring throw. TDs No. 50 and 51, which came during a two-and-a-half minute stretch in the fourth quarter, were equally gorgeous: a 20-yard floater to receiver Eric Decker in the left corner of the end zone and a 25-yard dart to tight end Julius Thomas near the right pylon.
While running backs LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles have had nice individual seasons for the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs, and while a case can certainly be made for Manning's chief rival, Brady, who has helped push the New England Patriots to an 11-4 record despite a pronounced dearth of offensive weapons, Manning is going to run away with the MVP vote. In fact, he's a threat to win it unanimously.
Consider that he has presided over a record-setting offense, the first in NFL history to have five players (Decker, Julius Thomas, Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Knowshon Moreno) score at least 10 touchdowns, with all but Moreno reaching double digits as the recipients of Manning's throws. Given Manning's mastery of his craft and comprehensive involvement in all facets of the operation, it's fair to argue that he's taken the passing game to an unprecedented level of excellence.
Put it this way: When Wade Phillips, the Texans' interim coach and decorated defensive strategist, told reporters who cover the Broncos last week that Manning was having "just the best year ever of any quarterback," he wasn't blowing smoke -- he was simply spitting truth, or at least something very close to it.
Manning, of course, cares far more about the prospect of pushing his team to postseason glory -- and come January, we'll have plenty of opportunities to explore his previous playoff frustrations and assess the Broncos' chances of reaching their first Super Bowl since Elway's swan song 15 years ago.
However, given that this is the final 32 Questions column of the 2013 season -- next week, as per custom, we'll trim our query-laced pecking order to include just the dozen teams that reach the postseason -- I'm going to focus, for now, on the 16-game slate that will conclude next Sunday night, when the Dallas Cowboys (by the grace of a dramatic comeback victory over the Washington Redskins in Landover, Md. -- the day's most exciting finish) play host to the Philadelphia Eagles in the third annual NFC East Championship Game.
As we close in on a weekend that will see 11 squads fight for five remaining playoff spots, here's how some of the other regular-season award races are shaping up:
» Defensive Player of the Year: An excellent case can be made for a pair of Seattle Seahawks defensive backs, safety Earl Thomas and cornerback Richard Sherman, though there's always a risk that two teammates might cancel one another out in the voting. And a couple of sack-happy Roberts -- the Rams' Quinn and the Colts' Mathis -- also have strong credentials. However, Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly might have vaulted to the top of the list with his eye-popping performance in Sunday's showdown with the New Orleans Saints (10-5) for NFC South supremacy, a 17-13 victory that pulled Carolina (11-4) within a game of clinching a first-round playoff bye. While stats for total tackles tend to be somewhat uneven and arbitrary, the fact that the second-year pro was credited with 24 stops in a game of such magnitude is not trivial. Throw in the defensive signal-caller's third-quarter interception of Drew Brees, and it's clear this was the kind of indelible performance that can push a player over the top. Whatever happens, the fact that the Panthers are going to the playoffs for the first time in five years ensures that Kuechly will have further opportunities to impress on the big stage.
» Offensive Rookie of the Year: As a Cal guy, I should be beating my chest for Chargers wideout Keenan Allen, whose 4-yard touchdown catch pushed San Diego ahead for good in a victory over the Oakland Raiders that kept the Bolts' playoff hopes alive. And Allen, a third-round draft pick, has put up some nice numbers, catching 66 passes for 957 yards and eight scores. Yet, at this point, I'd lean slightly toward the instant impact of Green Bay Packers halfback Eddie Lacy (263 carries, 1,112 yards, 10 touchdowns), whose ferocious running has helped keep the Pack afloat while star signal-caller Aaron Rodgers (the only man alive who can approximate the transcendent quarterbacking style of Manning and Brady) remains out with a broken collarbone that apparently carries too much risk of re-injury to allow for his return. Remarkably, the Packers -- even after a heartbreaking 38-31 defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers that dropped them to 7-7-1 -- remain alive in the NFC North, thanks to losses by the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions. With the Lions now eliminated, the Bears will host the Packers on Sunday afternoon with the division title at stake -- a game for which Rodgers might or might not return.
» Defensive Rookie of the Year: Sunday began with the Miami Dolphins in control of their playoff fortunes. It ended with the 'Fins (8-7) still alive but reeling after a 19-0 gut punch of a defeat to the previously eliminated Buffalo Bills. The Bills' defensive effort included eight tackles by rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso, who has been an instant playmaker and leader. The former Oregon standout is a great story -- I had a chance to spend some time with him before he was selected by the Bills in the second round of last April's draft -- and I look forward to watching him help Buffalo end its league-worst playoff drought at some point in the near future. No other defensive rookie has made an impact as great as Alonso's.
» Coach of the Year: Before Sunday's egg laying of massive proportions, the Dolphins' Joe Philbin was being talked up as a strong candidate. Really? Miami has had too many faceplants in 2013 for my tastes. I'm similarly unmoved by the support for Bruce Arians (the Arizona Cardinals are 10-5 after an impressive 17-10 upset of the Seattle Seahawks, who lost at home for the first time in two seasons -- still, Arians' squad are major longshots to reach the playoffs) and Bill Belichick (he's great every year, so I guess I've been desensitized). I'm definitely down with Riverboat Ron Rivera, who fought through rumors of his impending dismissal and coaxed the Panthers back from a 1-3 start to their first playoff appearance since 2008. And yet, a voice in my head keeps telling me that we're overthinking this award: How, exactly, is the Chiefs' Andy Reid not taking this one home in a runaway? Having flamed out in Philly last December following a mostly successful 14-year run, Reid took over a Kansas City Chiefs team that was a league-worst 2-14 in 2012. Let me repeat: The Chiefs were 2-14. Under Reid's culture-changing revival, K.C. won 11 of its first 14 games, clinching a playoff spot in advance of Sunday's 23-7 defeat to the Indianapolis Colts, its potential first-round opponent. Yes, I'm aware that the Chiefs were a trendy postseason pick before the season -- it's true that many of us foresaw the possibility -- but aren't we taking this dramatic turnaround for granted, and underplaying its improbability? If I had a vote, I'd cast it for Big Red and sleep soundly at night.
For now, I'm awake and inquisitive and ready for Week 17:
1) Seattle Seahawks: When Pete Carroll suggested that the team's 19-17 defeat to the 49ers earlier this month "could be the best scenario," is it fair to conclude he wasn't counting on losing to the Cardinals?
2) Denver Broncos: When Manning said of his touchdown-pass record, "Brady will probably break it again next year," was he tempted to add, "Oh, wait -- all of his good receivers are either gone, injured or in jail? Never mind ..."?
15) Baltimore Ravens: How can Ravens fans not be frustrated after Sunday's debacle against the Patriots -- although, even after his missed 37-yard field goal, how can I be anything but elated about Justin Tucker's past seven days?
17) St. Louis Rams: Is any NFL defensive lineman better than Robert Quinn -- and how scary would the Rams' defense be if they were to land this guy in 2014 with the first-round pick they obtained in the RGIII trade?
22) Buffalo Bills: Are you as surprised as I am to learn that the Bills are the first team since the 2000 Saints to have three players with at least 10 sacks -- and how many of you could name two of those three players?
26) Minnesota Vikings: How awesome would it be if Leslie Frazier and Jim Schwartz snuck out at halftime of their teams' Week 17 meeting at the Metrodome, hopped into a rented Dodge Charger and went on a weeklong bender in New Orleans?
29) Oakland Raiders: If Dennis Allen loses to the Broncos next week -- and ends up with as many victories in two seasons as predecessor Hue Jackson had in one -- how surprising would it be if Allen were to remain employed?
Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.