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It’s not often that an NFL team finishes 12–4, cruises to a division title, earns a first-round bye in the playoffs—and still has its fans fretting like a parent on prom night.
As we orange-and-blue bleeders nibble our nails to the nub, the Broncos are confidently preparing for Sunday’s rematch with the Colts. Manning and company opened the season with a 31–24 win over Indy that hinged on Peyton’s efficiency and a pair of Andrew Luck interceptions. The home team is favored again and should be able to advance to the AFC Championship game by simply continuing to do what it’s been doing most of the year. The gametime forecast says sunny, dry, and mid-40s, so Manning’s notoriously iffy cold-weather track record shouldn’t be a factor.
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However, even if the Broncos survive this round, a host of other “ifs” remain. Chief among these is Peyton himself. The 38-year-old finished the season by showing his age more than ever—his December stats were downright mediocre—and although he’s only officially suffered a thigh injury this year, he absorbed the worst series of beatings he’s had in his three seasons in Denver. The defenses the Broncos faced in the second half knocked around Manning much more than he’s accustomed to, and it’s natural to wonder how much of a toll that’s taken.
This perception is goosed by the fact that the team ran the ball much more frequently and aggressively in November and December. It was a sound tactical choice as we head into the frigid football January inevitably brings, but it also made people wonder if the coaching staff switched tactics as much to protect its veteran QB as to add a new dimension. If it was the latter, great; plenty of teams have ridden a strong running game and stout defense to the Lombardi Trophy.
But we won’t know until Sunday—or possibly the following Sunday—if it was the former. The Broncos don’t need Manning to be great to win, but they do need him to be at least solid and mistake free, because their possible upcoming opponents leave no margin for error. Should the Broncos top the Colts they’ll either face Baltimore at home or a return trip to New England. Neither is particularly appetizing. Although it obviously would be preferable to stage the Super Bowl play-in game here, everyone in Colorado is acutely, miserably aware of how tough the Ravens are. And Tom Brady in New England is Tom Brady in New England.
The Broncos’ reward for surviving the AFC death march would likely mean a rematch with a Seattle team that might be playing even better than the one that pounded them last February—the more palatable alternative could be a showdown with the best signal-caller on the planet, Aaron Rodgers—so if Denver hoists the Lombardi this time, they’ll have earned it and then some.
That’s why, with our nibbled fingers crossed and our ulcers a-gurgling, we still can’t wait for Sunday and the NFL’s unique brand of “fun.”
Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.