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After record-breaking season, Peyton Manning and Broncos seek perfection

After record-breaking season, Peyton Manning and Broncos seek perfection Photo: Jed Jacobsohn/Sports Illustrated

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--The defensive tackle looks like he could clear out a Dunkin Donuts’ inventory in one sitting, 335 pounds of muscle and mass. His quarterback is slimmer, taller, just as one would expect, but he’s hardly the most athletic player at his position. Even so, he’s a future Hall of Famer who holds nearly every offensive record in the NFL – and he’s standing safely out of earshot.
 
As he shifts his bulk from one tree trunk of a leg to the other, Terrance Knighton is resolute. Who would win in a footrace, he or Peyton Manning? “Me, by far,” Knighton says.
 
Manning asked for it. Near the end of his first offensive series on Sunday against the 49ers, the Broncos quarterback faced a second down at San Francisco’s 9-yard line. He scanned for his options, and maybe he didn’t like them – or maybe he just felt like a dose of taunting. Instead of passing, instead of handing off the ball, 38-year-old Manning decided to scramble.
 
He made it one yard before Aldon Smith smushed him into the grass.
 
You have to imagine Manning chuckling into his headset as he peeled himself up. I’m Peyton Manning, and it’s the preseason, and I do what I like.

"It’s a tendency-breaker," he said after the game, laughing. "You try to catch them off guard. It’s not probably high on their alert game plan."
 
And after lamenting the fact that he didn’t score – he said he believed he would – Manning moved on to a breakdown of his game, a 102-yard, two-series day. Oh, and did he mention he went 12-of-14, that his team won, 34-0? Ho hum, just another afternoon.

Manning is obviously the key to the Broncos’ success. If he’s healthy, they’re great. A twisted ankle, a tweaked back, they’re done – maybe not in December, but certainly before February. However, after an offensive performance like the Broncos’ of a year ago, it’s hard not to wonder if that wasn’t just the best it could ever get. Manning and his quartet of receivers set nearly every record in the book, and this offseason, attention rightfully shifted to the defense. That was what needed to improve, and it did, making the switch from Eric Decker to Emmanuel Sanders an afterthought.
 
But here’s an idea, in the form of a horror-movie nightmare for the NFL’s other 31 teams: Manning and his traveling circus may just be even better in 2014.
 
The personnel is largely the same with Sanders and Indiana rookie Cody Latimer the only impactful additions to the roster on offense. But left tackle Ryan Clady will return from a foot injury that sidelined him for 14 games last year, Julius Thomas will have a season of experience as a starter and Demaryius Thomas is playing for a contract. Sure, Knowshon Moreno is gone, but Montee Ball should be a serviceable replacement, and really, this is still all about Manning’s arm.


 
Well, it’s about Manning’s arm, and it’s about his crazy attention to detail, his pragmatic, borderline boring approach to perfection. A year ago, Denver led the NFL in fumbles lost with 16, a number made all the more stunning by the fact that it still had the league’s best offense. During minicamp and organized team activities this summer, ball security was the Broncos’ No. 1 focus, and it remains such. It might sound like a tiny detail, but if 16 fumbles lost become six, that’s the possibility for 10 more touchdowns, for 70 more points, for another win in a tight game.
 
"They had some turnovers on their side of the ball," Manning said of the 49ers, who turned the ball over four times on Sunday. “That led to some points for us, some good field position. It just goes to show you what [happens] when you put your team in a tough position. … We’ll stress [ball control] the entire season. It’s still the top priority, I think, every time you go on offense.”
 
Manning has also been hammering home his strong opinions about third downs. Third down, it’s almost like a dirty phrase to the Broncos' quarterback, who’s more concerned with avoiding them than he is with converting. He has his receivers parroting that message, too.

"Our main thing,” Thomas said, “is first down, second down, first down, second down."


 
It sounds mundane. This is not an offense that oozes swagger. It is implied, assumed. Manning and company are not in the business of Hail Mary's or miracles. They lather, rinse and repeat, because they’ve found what works. And as much as the clock might be ticking on Manning’s career, he’s still using time to find every last edge.
 
"Peyton is Peyton," Thomas said. "He’s going to do what he’s going to do. It seems like he’s getting better and better every year."
 
And as goes Manning, so goes the Broncos offense. Which means… shush. They don’t want to jinx … shush. But really: can it be even better?
 
"I don’t know," Thomas begins. "Maybe." He laughs, and he shrugs, and he makes that face that says he’s thinking one thing and saying another. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
 
Then he concedes, if only an inch: "That’s the goal."

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