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Is this goodbye?

Broncos’ Winter Starts Way Too Early

After Sunday's debacle, Elway and Company suddenly have some uncomfortable questions to answer.

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WATCH: Playoffs 2015: An Ode to Broncos Country by Woody Roseland.

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And now for the column that shouldn’t have run for at least another week:

It’s funny how obvious things seem in retrospect. In retrospect, it was clear that neither the Broncos nor Peyton Manning were as good down the stretch as they had been for most of the 2014 season. It wasn’t anything glaring; after all, they won five of their last six games before the playoffs. They just didn’t look all that dominant or exciting (or excited) doing it.

Championship teams tend to have an “it” factor, a swagger that demands respect. The presence of this doesn’t guarantee a ring; as the adage goes, that’s why they play the games.

In retrospect, the Broncos have lacked that swagger since the first play of Super Bowl XLVIII. They might have recaptured it momentarily about halfway through this past season—when they were 6–1 and their nemesis, the Seahawks, were still struggling. But the Broncos lost it just as quickly when their other nemesis, the Patriots, humbled them and Manning in week 9.

And they’ve surely lacked it since the beginning of December, which is about when Manning suffered the quad injury—or injuries (reports vary)—that reduced him to just another QB. It’s a relief to know that he hasn’t re-injured his surgically repaired neck, but being unable to push off his legs for more than a month has crippled his ability to throw the ball deep and compromised his exhaustively precise footwork. Once opposing defenses figured this out, the Broncos’ postseason run started to seem doomed. In retrospect, maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised that a relatively minor injury had such a major impact on an aging star.

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(Read 5280‘s special report, “Peyton’s Last Stand?”)

Although we were confident heading into Sunday, it’s doubtful many Denver fans thought the team could beat New England on the road, and even fewer could delude themselves into believing the Broncos could avenge their last two losses to Seattle, which currently has enough swagger for 10 teams. In retrospect, even with the remade defense and still-potent offense, this entire season has had an air of desperation that blunted the optimism.

The question for Elway is, what to do now? Is he in the possibly unprecedented position of rebuilding a 12–4 team? The defense is still solid (if aging), the receiving corps is still first-rate, and running back C.J. Anderson might prove to be a genuine steal.

But in the NFL, it always comes down to the QB. Now that coach John Fox is leaving town, who the team tabs to replace him might determine Manning’s future as well. It would be surprising if Manning announced anything about his future before his annual physical in early March, but even if his neck and arm are in good shape, strained quads are the kind of nagging injury any athlete must deal with in the twilight of his career. Some of them might be able to play through it, but in Manning’s case, even such a seemingly minor setback clearly sets off a physical chain reaction that makes his legendary arm a memory.

It’s inconceivable that Manning would willingly continue to play as a backup, or that he would even go into the next training camp needing to beat out Brock Osweiler for the starting job. (Nor would Elway ask him to do so, out of respect.) We all hoped Manning would end his career as Elway did, carrying a Lombardi trophy off the field. Instead, he might have finished up with yet another humbling home playoff loss. Although that shouldn’t tarnish his hall of fame legacy, it’s still pretty depressing. But not as depressing as it would be if he was benched part of the way through 2015 because of injury or ineffectiveness.

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Every Bronco fan would love to see a healthy and reinvigorated Manning return next year and make one more run with what should be a talented roster. The personnel decisions Elway now must make will likely determine whether we end up regretting that wish. And if we do, in retrospect, an unfortunate conclusion to Manning’s brilliant career will have been pretty predictable.

Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.

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