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Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos pushing to shake playoff past

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- After the season ends each year, Peyton Manning takes his notebook to a meeting with his coaches. It is filled with his thoughts of the weaknesses he perceives in his game and the things he wants to work on in the upcoming offseason, the tweaks he thinks he must make to get better. The notes were there when Manning first came into the league, and they were there long after he was established as one of the game's best, after a championship and playoff losses, after Tony Dungy retired -- there was no meeting that year -- and after Manning moved to Denver. The tenor of the meetings in Indianapolis were always the same, say the people who were there: Never high or low because of the season's outcome, Manning was always business as usual.

Those notes are a monument to Manning's relentless preparation, but they are something else, too. They quite literally turn the page on a season, no matter how it ended, within days of its conclusion.

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That ability -- to keep looking forward despite what has happened, even in what might have been the painful recent past -- is one of the reasons that Manning has had a long, successful career, believes Tom Moore, Manning's former offensive coordinator. The playoff record that seems to be the only cloud shading his time in the NFL thus far does not register for Manning, Moore thinks, as soon as that notebook closes on a season.

"Peyton deals in the positives," Moore said in an interview this week. "This is a new year. All the other stuff is history. You live for today. Any time you lose, it's a shock. Nobody wants to lose. One of Peyton's many great attributes -- he has a lot of them -- is to put things to bed. You move on. That's what Peyton does."

Perhaps. But as Manning prepared to participate in the playoffs for the 13th time in his 16-year career, even he admitted that the Broncos in 2013 were motivated in part by one of the most stunning losses he has suffered: the overtime defeat against the Baltimore Ravens in Denver in the divisional round last season. They talked about that loss when they reconvened to start the offseason program last April. It is why they ran extra sprints and did extra squats, why they participated in extra meetings, Manning said. And it is why Manning's postseason record continues to be a source of wonder, even after -- or perhaps because -- he constructed an extraordinary year at the age of 37.

Manning broke the single-season touchdown and passing yards records. That the Broncos have the AFC's top seed in the playoffs again is in large part because of Manning's offensive production. It is all enough for many people to already consider him the greatest quarterback in history, no matter what else happens.

But what else has happened has been confounding.

Manning has led his team to more playoff appearances than any other quarterback in history, missing the playoffs just twice when healthy. But he has had more one-and-done appearances (eight) than any quarterback, too. That the Broncos are in exactly the same position they were in last season -- as a No. 1 seed at home facing an underdog on the upswing -- is lost on nobody. In divisional-round games after receiving a first-round bye, Manning is 1-4, the worst such record in NFL history.

All of those losses are assigned to Manning, but of course they were not all his fault, and there is no common thread winding through them. In some, he and Tom Brady engaged in epic aerial showdowns. In the 2005 playoffs, Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt missed a 46-yard field-goal attempt that would have tied the Steelers in the divisional round. In the 2010 wild-card round, the Colts special teams gave up a big kickoff return and the defense could not hold off the Jets. Last season, with 41 seconds remaining in that divisional matchup, Rahim Moore allowed Jacoby Jones to get behind him for a 70-yard touchdown that sent the game to overtime.

Still, it is impossible not to consider Manning's personal ledger, the lone Super Bowl title, the one Super Bowl loss, the crushing disappointments that came before, in between, and after those.

Bill Polian, the former Colts general manager and president, is convinced that the pressure of the playoffs does not influence Manning. Moore describes Manning's preparation as a model of consistency, not more intensive for any particular game. No matchup has any more significance in Manning's preparation, which is, the way Moore makes it sound, part of an intellectual exercise in decoding an opponent, whether in September or January.

"I'm certain he does not think about it," Polian said. "Where he is focused is on the tactics of the game at hand. He is probably thinking that they're going to have to score a lot to beat the Chargers."

But the perception remains that Manning's meticulous preparation might have been his undoing all these years -- that rather than enlivening him, it has constricted him in the biggest moments, the expectation of greatness tightening around him as the stakes grew.

Manning has been increasingly reflective of late, particularly since his neck injury cost him the 2011 season. This week, he said he had always enjoyed preparing for elimination games, no matter how excruciating the outcomes. Last year, after the Ravens stunned the Broncos, Manning said he was not shocked. That was not the right word, he said. He was disappointed. But on he went, and now he is back to that spot again, pushing back against the idea that what has happened before weighs on him now.

"I mean, if it's just miserable this whole time, then why are you really doing it?" Manning said. "I mean, there are other things you can do that might make you feel less miserable than if it's just an absolute grind. That is my approach. And maybe, as you get older, you think more in those lines -- that, 'Hey, this is a pretty unique opportunity to be in this position, to be one of just a few teams playing.' And so that is certainly my goal, to enjoy the preparation -- not just the game -- to actually enjoy the preparation part of it, enjoy being around the guys. Because certainly, the light is at the end of the tunnel for me -- no question. And so, I think you enjoy these things maybe even more than maybe you have in the past."

"It's easy to summarize, to take a whole bunch of football seasons and lump them together," Manning continued. "I personally don't believe in that theory, how it works. I think each season takes on its own identity and different things occurred along the way at different points of my career -- in anybody's career. This is the 2013 season, 2014 postseason, and it's its own chapter. We're looking forward to hopefully writing it for a number of more weeks."

And whatever happens -- against the Chargers on Sunday, or in the AFC Championship Game, or perhaps even in the Super Bowl -- there will eventually be a meeting, with the notes, the prologue for next season.

As the field narrows, here are 10 things to watch from the teams that are left to take part in the season's best weekend of football:

1) Will the Broncos or Seahawks fall prey to a recent and startling trend? Since 2005, sixth seeds are 5-2 against No. 1 seeds. The last time a No. 6 faced a No. 1 was during the 2010 playoffs, when both the sixth seeds (the Packers and Jets) beat the top seeds (the Falcons and Patriots) in their respective conferences. Both sixth seeds beat the No. 1s in the 2008 postseason, too. The trend is especially ominous for the Seahawks. The No. 1 seed in the NFC has been one-and-done in four of the past six playoffs.

2) Will the home teams hold up better than they did in the wild-card round, when three of them lost? According to NFL Media's research department, the divisional round of the playoffs has the most significant home-field advantage of any round of playoffs -- with the host squad winning 72.8 percent of games -- among the four major U.S. sports. In the NBA conference semifinals, home teams win 67.4 percent of the time, while home teams win just 59.8 percent of World Series games. The worst home-field advantage is the Stanley Cup Finals' mark of 58.6. Since 2010, four teams have won on the road in the NFL's divisional round -- with all three going on to win the Super Bowl (the 2012 Ravens, 2011 Giants and 2010 Packers).

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3) Does the Saints' road victory in the wild-card round mean anything for their rematch in Seattle? The statistics are definitely against the Saints upsetting the Seahawks. New Orleans was trounced in Seattle back in Week 13 by the score of 34-7. Teams that lose a regular-season game by at least 27 points and play that same team on the road in the postseason are 2-9.

4) Will anybody throw over the middle in Seattle? Drew Brees (6-feet tall) and Russell Wilson (5-11) will tie for the shortest combined height of starting quarterbacks in the postseason since 1950. Not surprisingly, neither Brees nor Wilson throws much over the middle. It's the hardest throw for height-challenged quarterbacks to make, because their sightlines are limited by the towering linemen directly in front of them. Wilson throws down the middle just 14.57 percent of the time, the lowest percentage among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts this season. That translates to 59 attempts, with four going for touchdowns and three getting picked off. Brees throws down the middle 19.91 percent of the time, below the league average of 23.8 percent. Brees' 129 attempts have yielded 10 touchdowns and three interceptions.

5) Can the Patriots contain the Colts' premier pass rusher on Saturday? Robert Mathis has 19.5 of the Colts' 42 sacks, or 46.4 percent -- the highest such mark of any player in the league. His strip-sack of Alex Smith in the third quarter of Saturday's wild-card showdown with the Chiefs was a critical moment in the Colts' comeback. Mathis has five sacks in 12 career games against the Patriots -- but no sacks in two playoff games. Tom Brady has been sacked 40 times this season.

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6) Can Andrew Luck continue to elevate his game against the NFL's best teams? The Colts are 5-2 against playoff teams (7-3 against non-playoff teams), and Luck's completion percentage (62.1) was better than it was against non-playoff opponents (59.3). His passing yards were also greater (261.1 yards per game versus 243.7) and his touchdown-to-interception ratio was better (14:4 versus 13:8). That might explain how the Colts went 4-0 against the Broncos, Seahawks, 49ers and Chiefs this season, while those teams went 49-11 against the rest of the NFL.

7) How good are the defenses in Niners-Panthers? This game will feature two of the top three scoring defenses in the league. In their Week 10 matchup, Carolina and San Francisco combined for 401 total yards, the fewest in any game this season. The 49ers' 151 total yards was a season low and Colin Kaepernick's 91 yards was his career low as a starter. But Kaepernick, of course, turns it on in the playoffs, passing and rushing for significantly more yards than he does in the regular season: He averages 47.4 more passing yards per contest and 57.4 more rushing yards.

8) Can the Carolina defense handle Michael Crabtree? Pass defense is considered the relatively weak link of the Panthers' D (their pass defense is ranked sixth in the league, compared with second for the overall, scoring and run defense). The 49ers, meanwhile, are 6-0 this season when Crabtree plays; in his past four playoff games, he has averaged seven receptions for 102.5 yards. He's also scored three touchdowns.

9) Will the Chargers change the historical trend when they face the Broncos for the third time this season? There have been 83 instances of teams playing three times in a season, with the third matchup coming in the playoffs. In those games, the home team is 39-25 in the third meeting. And when the team that won the second game goes on the road for the third, as the Chargers are doing, that team is 3-9.

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10) Can Philip Rivers take advantage of Denver's 27th-ranked pass defense? Rivers might not be able to throw much if the Chargers try to run the ball to control the clock. But when Rivers does take to the skies, he could air it out, as he was much more successful on deeper throws this year, connecting on 18 of 42 attempts of at least 21 yards in the air, than last year, when he was 18 of 55. His yards per attempt mark on such throws was 14.7 compared with 10.6 last year, and he had seven touchdowns and three interceptions this season compared with four touchdowns and four interceptions last season.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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