DENVER -- He was not going to discuss his health, but it was plain to see. Peyton Manning's ankles had been heavily taped Sunday night, concealing what appeared to be a brace on the right one, and the game plan was one of an immobilized quarterback. That it worked against the NFL's top scoring defense -- the determination to keep running, the blink-and-you'd-miss-it release that kept the pass rush back in a 27-17 win over the Kansas City Chiefs -- didn't obscure the reality.
This is how the Denver Broncos probably will have to play for a while, maybe the rest of the season, until Manning has a chance to heal.
These are the accommodations Manning and the Broncos make now, in the absence of bubble wrap, to get his body to the finish line. He takes days off from practice to receive extra treatment. He dips himself in postgame ice baths so chilly that he still is shivering when he gets to his news conference. He has worked to build up his midsection and lower body to counterbalance whatever drop in arm strength his multiple neck surgeries might have exacted.
That all of these things might not work this coming Sunday night -- when Denver faces a New England Patriots offense that is much more capable of staying with the Broncos in their pinball-number games -- or that in two weeks the Chiefs might figure out a way to better cover the Broncos' receivers without drawing an avalanche of penalties (or to manufacture a few more big plays themselves), is beside the point for now.
In a week-to-week league, the Broncos have inched another gameday closer to the only thing that really matters for them: the postseason. The regular season really is just a means to an end for Denver, as it has been since that first explosive performance against the defending champion Baltimore Ravens in the season opener.
Manning said all the right things late Sunday night when he talked about how critical this three-game stretch is to the Broncos' ultimate ambitions -- "We hoped they were going to matter, because that meant we had taken care of business early in the season," he said -- but Sunday's victory was an important one, and not just because it allowed Denver to take what still could turn out to be a brief lead in the AFC West. The Chiefs might retake that lead in two weeks, when deafening Arrowhead Stadium almost certainly will make Manning's ability to run his no-huddle offense much more difficult. But Sunday night also reassured the Broncos that they can keep Manning upright against what had been a ferocious pass rush -- albeit one that now has been dormant for two straight weeks -- and that they can win games even when Manning is not wholly Manning. In a season that has not yet presented a dominant team in either conference, the ability to churn out victories when all is not perfect is critical.
Lost in the rush to wonder if Manning is having his best season ever is the fact that Denver's defense hasn't come close to playing at the top-five level it achieved last season. With the Broncos sitting at 9-1, it hasn't mattered much that the unit ranks 23rd in points allowed, yielding a full touchdown more than it did last season. Still, the Broncos survived what could have been a crippling six-game suspension to linebacker Von Miller. Since his return, the defense has been different, cutting down on big plays, allowing fewer yards and causing more turnovers. This element of the game wasn't as crucial to the Broncos early on, but they'll need it going forward, especially if they have to keep playing this more contained style while Manning recovers.
"We heard all this hoopla about which offense is best and which defense is best," Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard said Sunday night. "We just wanted to get out there and play our style of football, and that's physical. We gave up a few things, but that's just the game of football. You can coach from there and get better."
Doing that against the Patriots should prove more difficult. Their offense has not been what it once was, and their receivers have not been as impressive as they used to be. But Rob Gronkowski remains a matchup nightmare, and Bill Belichick has been, historically, one of the few people in the NFL capable of developing an antidote to Manning. It often has revolved around being physical with Manning's receivers -- when the Patriots successfully did that in an AFC Championship Game a decade ago, it led former Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian to successfully lobby the NFL to more tightly enforce rules dictating how and when defenders could engage with receivers -- although the Patriots' injury-depleted defense simply might not have enough healthy defenders to hold off the Broncos all night. One potential loss for Denver: Wes Welker suffered a concussion Sunday, an injury that could wipe out his return to New England and, more to the point for the Broncos, eliminate one of Manning's myriad targets.
This is the NFL's version of survival of the fittest. The Patriots have survived despite an early wave of injuries that first short-circuited their offense and then withered their defense. On Sunday, the Broncos were the survivors, with their battered and questioned offensive line holding up better than anybody could have expected.
The Broncos and Chiefs now are in the teeth of their respective schedules -- Kansas City faces the San Diego Chargers this week -- and given the relative ease of Denver's slate after this stretch, it seems reasonable to assume that whoever emerges on top in December will be in control for the AFC West title and perhaps home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. That would seem to be particularly crucial for the Broncos, because a first-round bye would allow Manning to rest his ankle(s) a bit more.
This is the part of the year that Manning put himself through his grueling rehabilitation for. Next to his staggering regular-season successes over the years, Manning's postseason triumphs just don't compare. Before the Colts lost to the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV at the end of the 2009 season, Manning's former coach, Tony Dungy, made the argument that Manning already should be considered the greatest quarterback in history, regardless of whether the Lombardi Trophies ever flowed his way again.
"I thought he should be up at the top three years ago," Dungy told me then. "The championships are fickle and fragile -- Dwight Freeney gets hurt, and maybe someone else gets hurt, and you don't win a championship. Does that take away from where he is in the scope of the league? If two championships will solidify that in peoples' minds, great. He's been as much of a factor on this offense as any quarterback in the history of football. He has dominated his era like no one except maybe Otto Graham."
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It's been almost four years since Dungy said that, and while Manning's dominance has not abated, the championships have gone elsewhere. It was easy then to see him playing many more years -- that was the Super Bowl at which owner Jim Irsay promised to lavish Manning with the biggest contract in NFL history -- but now, with each hit he takes, with each roll of tape wound around his ankles, it is fair to wonder how many more seasons he has in him, how much longer he will prevail even when his body aches.
For now, even a physically compromised Manning is good enough to top an undefeated team. And as Manning exited with his father, Archie, on Sunday night -- walking without a limp, by the way, after adamantly expressing that he would not be giving daily or weekly updates on his health -- that was the takeaway that mattered for this week. One week closer to when the Broncos' real season begins.