DENVER -- There in the Broncos' locker room, chatting with his father at his locker, was the most frightening sight in the NFL: Peyton Manning, standing up.
That was all the Broncos needed against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday night. It may be enough to help the Broncos win their third Super Bowl and Manning his second. The Chiefs entered the game with the best record in the NFL. They left as the second-best team in their own division. The Broncos' 27-17 win over the Chiefs was not a blowout, but it was a methodical dismantling. Denver simply numbed Kansas City into a nap.
And if the Chiefs are discouraged, they ought to stop reading.
"We can play better," Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas said. "We're glad that we won, but we can play a lot better."
Yes, they can. Yes, Manning can. Manning looked a little shaky planting on his sprained right ankle early in the game, but Manning with no ankles is better than Alex Smith with two.
Manning's right ankle was wrapped in athletic tape, but he could have taped $1,000 bills to it and would not have left the game any poorer. The Chiefs' powerful defensive line never got near him. The Broncos' offensive line, missing Pro Bowl tackle Ryan Clady, made sure of that.
"To go sackless against the leading sack defense in the NFL, that's a great testament to those guys," Manning said.
SI Now: Why the Broncos are the kings of the AFC
On Monday's SI Now, The MMQB staff writer Jenny Vrentas and the host of NBC's "American Ninja Warrior" Matt Iseman discuss how Ford 'Power Player' Peyton Manning
and the Broncos
' run game have powered them to the top of the AFC.
The Broncos won Game 1 of their three-game tour of the top of the AFC. Next week they visit New England for another Manning-Tom Brady showdown. Then they play the Chiefs again, in Kansas City. They are 9-1, and they hold the tiebreaker over 9-1 Kansas City. New England, at 7-2 entering tonight's tricky game at Carolina, still lurks. The race is not over. But this is a lousy year to wager against Peyton Manning.
"He's a pretty good quarterback," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said, and who says Reid doesn't have a sense of humor?
The Broncos needed this one, no doubt. They were home, and a loss would mean a two-game deficit in their own division, which would probably mean zero home playoff games. And yet, Kansas City needed this one, too. Manning was hobbling enough that he missed a practice this week. The Broncos were never worried he would sit ("Peyton is one of the fiercest competitors that's ever played this game," cornerback Quentin Jammer said), but still, it was fair to wonder if he would be the same passer.
He wasn't the same, really. Manning threw a deep ball to Thomas for 70 yards when the Chiefs stacked the line of scrimmage and dared him to do it. But other than that, Manning left the fireworks in his pocket. He threw a lot of short- to intermediate-range passes, with pretty good success; in other words, he was the quarterback that Smith is supposed to be.
Manning finished with 24 completions in 40 attempts for 323 yards and a touchdown. Those numbers would excite the agents for a lot of quarterbacks. But Manning can, and usually does, play better.
There is never a great day to face Peyton Manning, but this day was better than most. This was the chance for the Chiefs' defense to keep Manning out of the end zone, and for Smith to make enough plays to eke out a win.
In two weeks, Kansas City will have its home crowd. But what if Manning has his health back?
The Broncos took some pride in showing that Kansas City is not the only AFC West power that plays great defense. But the truth is, the Broncos had an easier task. Smith threw 14 passes to Dwayne Bowe and completed just four. Come playoff time, that will be the formula for opposing defenses: Lock up Bowe and running back Jamaal Charles and dare everybody else to beat you, because they probably won't.
The Broncos have six games left, but the next two are the big ones. After the visits to New England and Kansas City, the Broncos finish with four likely wins: Tennessee and San Diego at home, Houston and Oakland on the road. If they can win these next two, home field is theirs in January. Even if they split, they could have home field again.
Yes, it's true: They had home-field last year, and somehow, Baltimore stunned them. It could happen again. But if you have to pick a favorite in the AFC right now, it's Denver.
The season began with Manning's seven-touchdown assault on Baltimore, sparking a pace that he couldn't possibly keep up. But here he is, in mid-November, quarterback of the 9-1 Broncos. Still standing. Still aiming for that second ring.
How does that ankle feel, Peyton?
"I'm just not doing the weekly and daily checkups and updates," Manning said.
He didn't have to answer the question. He already had.