Monday September 8th, 2014

DENVER -- There are these moments, these stretched-out, slow-motion moments, when the stadium seems to swirl around him. Fans mill and teammates swarm, ticking off their pregame checklists. Cameramen in their neon vests swoop and crouch, flitting from star to star, smile to smile.

And he stretches, and he doesn’t quite scowl, but he acknowledges nothing. He claps. He stands. He paces, stepping square on each hash, slowly, precisely, somehow apart. A half-hour later, his teammates bounce out of an inflatable, horse-shaped tunnel. There are bursts of fire, gestures and dances. It is pure pageantry. He comes last.

Peyton Manning runs in a straight line, helmet on, eyes ahead, as if this is any other game.

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On Sunday night, the Broncos eked out a 31-24 win over the Colts, Manning’s first victory over his former team. What looked to be a blowout at halftime -- the Broncos were up by 17 -- left Denver holding its breath at the two-minute warning, and it was a rookie cornerback, not the best quarterback in the game, who saved the night.

Sure, Manning finished the game with 269 yards and three touchdown passes, but his receivers seemed to miss a beat without Wes Welker. The Broncos’ heralded, new-look defense also wavered at times, and maybe the game was closer than it should have been -- or maybe Andrew Luck is just that good. Regardless, the Broncos are who they claim to be. They are Super Bowl contenders. They are a defense rejuvenated, with a chance to be among the NFL’s better units.

They are, finally, the team that Manning built.

***

An hour south of Denver, in Colorado Springs, Madi Zawacki monitors her eBay listing. She wants to go on a trip with her high school biology class, you see, but it’s a pricey proposition -- so pricey, in fact, that she listed a jersey on the auction site to raise funds. It’s one of those half-and-half creations, one side Colts blue, one side Broncos orange, No. 18 -- and it’s autographed. Zawacki is asking $750. She won’t part with it lightly.

Zawacki found the jersey last winter, and she took it home thanks to a trade at a sports collectibles shop in Denver. It cost her a Julius Thomas autographed football and $200, and it was worth it, she thought, a good luck token for the Super Bowl. About that, she was wrong -- but she’ll still be sad to part with it, she said.

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Eleven months ago in Indianapolis, craft-project jerseys similar to Zawacki’s abounded. They belonged to Colts fans whose allegiances swayed with Manning, to universal supporters of the quarterback, no matter the team. They were everywhere. On Sunday in Denver, though, such creations were harder to spot. They popped up in every couple of sections, maybe, just a smattering. And yet, not one was quite like Zawacki’s.

The Colts blue is a little off, a bit too dark. And wait -- the collar is ringed in orange, not white. This isn’t a Colts half. It’s a Broncos alternate jersey stitched together with a road white, because it’s been three years, because Manning versus Indianapolis is last year’s news, because the Colts are Luck’s team.

Because Peyton’s city is Denver now.

***

When Demarcus Ware signed with the Broncos in March, it ended the defensive end’s nine-year tenure in Dallas. The Cowboys were the only team he’d ever known, and he was their king. Injuries slowed Ware in his final season in Texas, and just like Manning two years before, he had questions when he arrived in Denver.

How could he make this new place his home? How would he become a leader within months? There were smaller concerns, too: where to live, where to grocery shop. Where would he feel comfortable?

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So Ware turned to Manning. Live in this neighborhood, the quarterback suggested, you’ll be comfortable. Manning covered the logistics, but he also left the defensive end with a better sense of how to become Demarcus Ware, Denver Bronco.

“I think the main thing is to just be you,” Ware recalled Manning telling him. “We’ve been playing for so long -- me 10 [years], him 17 -- and so it’s a new color, a new jersey, a new atmosphere, but he told me that if I go out and play with the same tenacity as I did with the Cowboys and he did with Indy, the sky’s the limit.

“Peyton’s done it really well in being effective,” Ware added. “At the end of the day, it’s all about how you play. … If you can be effective and still be a great leader, eventually the guys corral around you and make you really comfortable. They know you’re the guy they look up to, the guy who’s going to help out, the leader that they need.”

Ware’s transition has been seamless. He’s the smiling, soft-spoken captain who still leaves younger players in awe -- and he has Manning to thank, at least in part.

***

In Denver, it’s possible to eat your dinner at John Elway’s restaurant and buy your car at a dealership bearing his name. It’s as if No. 7 sprung out of the Rockies, as if Stanford and California never happened, because Elway is Denver, through and through.

Manning will never be that, which is understandable. The Broncos were Elway’s career, and they are Manning’s retirement home, the team with which he’ll spend the admittedly awesome twilight of his career. Even so, Manning in Denver feels like more than just a late-career rental, and never more than on Sunday, thanks to the phenomenon that is Andrew Luck.

On Sunday, Luck stomped into town and made an offense that would be mediocre at best without him look excellent.

“He’s at the top,” Broncos safety Rahim Moore said of Luck. “I see his growth. I’ve been playing against him since college. I’ve known him since high school. … He’s at the top of the game. When Manning retires, Andrew Luck, I believe, is going to take over the game.”

Indianapolis has moved on, with good reason, and somehow, that makes No. 18 in orange seem that much less jarring. It makes four years ago seem like 14, and when Manning refers to the Colts as “they,” it flows easily off the tongue. Their offense, their game plan, their attack. There’s no being rattled this season, not like last year, when playing in the stadium he built proved to be more than Manning bargained for. Now, though, with a Super Bowl trip behind him and a revamped roster, Manning will take the stadium he built and raise it a team. This season, Manning may just have the deepest, most complete roster he ever has, and that trumps nostalgia a thousand times over.

With the win Sunday, Manning added the Colts to the list of NFL teams he’s defeated. Thirty-one became 32, a feat only he and Brett Favre have accomplished. It’s a feat of greatness, but it’s also a feat of permanence, a fact that doesn’t escape the Broncos’ quarterback.

“I think it means you have to be old,” Manning said. “You have to be 38 years old, at least, to beat all 32 teams. I don’t think I’ll put that up on my mantel or anything.”

In moments like these, he’s all too willing to embrace his age and the miles he’s put on his arm. Manning doesn’t want to admit to the emotion in this, to acknowledge that his place has changed, and his legacy, too. So he’ll joke about being 38, a full 14 years older than Luck, and he’ll play the cranky old man. He’ll play it -- but only when it’s convenient.

A few moments later, Manning is asked about his successor. Luck is good. Among the best. Some might say he’ll be the best to ever play.

Manning laughs. The subject, he said, is “a little deep for a Tennessee graduate.” But there’s a nanosecond before the joke, when those five words come at him. His eyes flash. The best to ever play -- Manning isn’t having that, not yet, not when he’s got a few great seasons left. Not when he’s out for that second Super Bowl and armed to do it.

And when he glares for that blink of a moment, before he cracks his signature joke, Manning is the purest form of himself. He’s determined, focused, hungry, and maybe Madi Zawacki shouldn’t sell her jersey, not quite yet. It may just be worth twice as much come February.

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