Ashley Fox | ESPN.com
DENVER — Peyton Manning couldn’t run. He couldn’t plant his back foot. He wore a brace on one knee and what looked like another on his right ankle. He has had four surgeries on his neck, problems with an elbow and a knee and now, at the tender age of 37 years old, is playing with not one but two sprained ankles.
There was so much tape wrapped around Manning’s ankles Sunday night that he could not have flexed his feet if he tried. Not that he tried.
And yet against Kansas City, Manning did what Manning has done throughout this season. He threw for at least 300 yards for the ninth time in 10 games and won for the ninth time in 10 games, beating the previously undefeated Chiefs 27-17 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
The message was clear. The Chiefs might be good. They might challenge the Broncos for the AFC West crown. They might have the superior defense. But for the division and presumably a first-round playoff bye, it is going to be a fight to the finish, because while a healthy Alex Smith is good, even a seriously hobbled Peyton Manning is better.
One question is, for how long will Manning’s body allow that to be the case? A few more games, or a few more seasons? And how healthy will Manning possibly be when the calendar flips to January, the weather dips and the stakes rise?
Good? Sufficient? Great? Championship worthy?
Because that is what this is about. That is why Manning is pushing his body past where it is probably reasonable and smart to push it. He has one ring. He wants another, and maybe another still.
Manning wants to cement his legacy, and the only way for him to do that is to survive the regular season and position the Broncos for the most forgiving path to the Super Bowl, and then see how it goes. He is the greatest pre-snap quarterback of all time. He has got the MVP trophies. He wants more postseason victories and Lombardi Trophies.
Which is why he plays, and pushes, even when it would seem reasonable not to.
Sunday was a perfect example.
After aggravating an ankle injury against San Diego the week before, Manning had both ankles heavily taped. As he had for the previous three games, Manning operated often from the shotgun or pistol formations so he did not have to drop back to pass, thus limiting the amount of stress on his ankles.
Working out of the no huddle, Manning frequently got the ball out of his hands so quickly that defenders had no time to push him down, much less sack him. The Chiefs came into the game leading the league in sacks, yet they didn’t touch Manning once.
Manning frequently danced on his tiptoes in the pocket. He rarely planted his back foot or stepped into his throws. It was more like he heaved the ball with his arm, often contorting his upper body for additional power, rather than using his lower-body strength.
Manning came into the game having completed 71.0 percent of his passes for an average of 8.8 yards per attempt, with a league-leading 33 touchdowns. Against the Chiefs, Manning completed 60.0 percent of his passes for an average of 8.1 yards per attempt, with one touchdown. He threw for 323 yards.
On the Broncos’ fourth drive of the game — coming after a crazy, two-play stretch in which Manning fumbled and then Kansas City’s Anthony Sherman gave Denver the ball right back — Manning got a matchup he wanted. Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas was in single coverage on the right side against rookie corner Marcus Cooper, who was a seventh-round draft choice of San Francisco that the Chiefs claimed off waivers right before the season started.
Thomas had two steps on Cooper, and Manning hit him for a 70-yard completion to the Chiefs’ 9-yard line. Two plays later, with Chiefs cornerback Brandon Flowers matched up on tight end Julius Thomas in the slot, Manning found Thomas with a slant for a touchdown.
Manning was good. He wasn’t great. And afterward, he had no interest in discussing his health, even when asked a general question about how he felt.
“I’m just not doing the weekly and daily updates,” Manning said.
And that was that.
Manning’s teammates knew the importance of keeping him upright. The game hinged on their ability to do that.
“We were able to keep 18 clean, and that was the main goal,” center Manny Ramirez said. “We know the situation that we’re in.”
Said interim head coach Jack Del Rio: “I thought we did enough to win tonight. I think part of it, a big part of it, was keeping him upright and not letting [Kansas City] be as disruptive as they’re capable of being.”
Protect the franchise. That was the goal, this week, last week and every week moving forward, for however long the journey with Manning lasts.
- ESPN.com NFL columnist
- Joined ESPN in 2011
- Has also worked at Sports Illustrated, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Louisville Courier-Journal