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Denver is undefeated despite having the league’s fourth-worst offense. Luckily the No. 2 defense—and everyone in the locker room—is standing behind their diminished quarterback

By Robert Klemko
October 20, 2015

CLEVELAND — Broncos running back C.J. Anderson shook his head in disgust. To his left, wide receiver Demaryius Thomas was defending Peyton Manning to reporters: “We don't really care what people say.” To Anderson’s right, fellow running back Ronnie Hillman was busy doing the same.

“This is stupid,” Anderson said as he took in the scene, repeating himself for emphasis. “This is stupid.”

The Broncos had just staggered to a 26-23 overtime victory against the Browns, a game that neither team seemingly wanted to win nor really deserved to. Manning completed 26 of 48 passes for 290 yards, with a beautiful 75-yard touchdown strike and three interceptions. When it was over you couldn’t help but feel the undefeated Broncos (6-0) are winning not because of Manning, but in spite of him—which led to a line of questioning that was greeted with furrowed brows and icy stares in the locker room.

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Anderson equated the criticism of Manning to the lofty expectations being heaped upon LSU running back Leonard Fournette, whose 180-yard performance last weekend was described as a relatively quiet night during the television broadcast.

“That’s not a quiet night, but people expect greatness,” Anderson said. “I’ve always said this about Peyton: When you play 17 years and you play at a high level every year, great things are expected. Peyton threw a few picks, but no one talks about that touchdown throw. That’s him being a great player.”

“Why am I encouraged?” Emmanuel Sanders said of Peyton Manning. “His team is still 6-0 and he’s not playing his best ball, and we’re not playing our best ball as an offense.”

The difference between Fournette, 20, and Manning, 39, is obvious. Manning’s neck ailments have left him without feeling in his fingertips, which has become apparent as passes drift sidelong out of his grasp and go either far beyond eligible receivers or into the hands of waiting defenders. Two linebackers intercepted Manning on Sunday—Karlos Dansby and Barkevious Mingo—on passes that almost seemed intended for the other team. Watching Manning these days is a lot like watching another legendary quarterback who played for a new team in his twilight.

In 2010, a 40-year old with 18 seasons as a starter under his belt was summoned for another run to the eventual chagrin of everyone involved. Brett Favre’s stat line through the first six games of his second season in Minnesota and final season in the NFL: 104 completions, 179 attempts, 1,191 yards, 58% completion rate, seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Peyton Manning, 39, has a similar line through six games of what could be his final NFL season: 146 completions, 237 attempts, 1,524 yards, 61% completion rate, seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

The big difference?

Favre’s Vikings were 2-4 after six games, with a defense that finished the season ranked No. 18 in yards allowed. Manning is playing with what looks to be one of the greatest defenses of this era. In 2010, the Vikings gave up 51 points as a result of Favre’s turnovers through six games. The Broncos have allowed just 30 points off Manning’s turnovers this season, with three touchdowns coming before the defense could have a say (pick-sixes).

What might we be saying about Manning and coach Gary Kubiak’s commitment to the starter if he didn’t have the benefit of a defense ranked second in yards allowed and turnovers forced, and hadn’t pulled off narrow wins over the middling Raiders, Vikings and Browns?

This is what people said about Favre in October 2010, a few months before he hobbled into a Week 15 matchup against the Bears with ankle and elbow injuries and was knocked out of the game (and the season) by a vicious sack.

“It seems as if he's playing only to show that he can keep playing,” wrote Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk.

“They need a shot of adrenaline up there,” Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath said. “I've got to believe the players recognize that Brett is not his old self.”

“There's a saying in NFL personnel departments that you compound an error by refusing to admit it soon enough,” wrote then-ESPN Minnesota radio reporter Tom Pelissero. “Bench his ass.”

“My body language may be bad, but it’s not directed at one guy,” Sanders says. “I don’t get frustrated with Peyton.”

An overlooked discrepancy in the circumstances between Favre and Manning is the amount of good will Manning has earned in Denver. He took the Broncos to a Super Bowl two seasons ago (something Favre didn’t do either in New York or Minnesota after leaving Green Bay), and Manning isn’t skipping practices for rehab; he’s working, constantly.

Yet it’s awkward to see wide receivers openly expressing frustration at blown opportunities that can only be blamed on the quarterback—the same QB who was notoriously vocal about holding teammates to the highest standards (Dammit, Donald!).

There was a moment on Sunday, with less than six minutes to go in the first half, when the Broncos’ offense ran the perfect play out of trips right on a third-and-10. Emmanuel Sanders cut to the middle of the field and found himself standing 10 yards in front of Manning without a defender in sight, and Manning missed him wide right by three yards. Sanders threw up his arms and Manning drooped his head on his way to the sideline. Just three seasons after Manning arrived in Denver and demanded that his offense catch up to his level of execution, the tables were turned.

“I don’t get frustrated with Peyton,” Sanders said later. “My body language may be bad, but it’s not directed at one guy. I’m just upset we didn’t make the play.”

In the fourth quarter Manning found Sanders streaking down the right sideline and hit him with a vintage throw to go up 23-20. It was a confirmation to the team that Manning still has it, and that they just need to hold on until he can find it on a regular basis.

“Why am I encouraged?” Sanders said. “His team is still 6-0 and he’s not playing his best ball, and we’re not playing our best ball as an offense.”

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A Cleveland field goal with 90 seconds left in regulation sent the game to overtime, and the Browns had every opportunity to win after Manning was intercepted on the opening drive of the extra period (Demaryius Thomas dropped a pass on third-and-2 that Mingo returned to Denver’s 39-yard line.) But Von Miller & Co. managed to knock Josh McCown’s offense backward on three consecutive plays, allowing Manning to dink and dunk his way to a game-winning field goal on the Broncos’ next possession.

“In those situations, we say, OK, the offensive guys made a mistake,” says Broncos linebacker DeMarcus Ware. “It’s not, Here we go again. It’s, Let’s get them the ball back because we know he’s going to score points.”

And who’s to say the rest of the season can’t go this way for the Broncos? How ironic it would be to see the micromanaging, ultra-demanding Manning win his second Super Bowl not as the engine of a team, but as its transmission. It’s possible, though the specter of January games and frozen fingertips isn’t encouraging, especially if this team wins home-field advantage in the playoffs. Regardless, Kubiak and general manager John Elway have a commitment to Manning that extends beyond a few bad performances. As long as this team is winning, the players do, too.

“I know one thing,” Anderson said on his way to the Broncos’ bus. “There are a lot of teams in this league that would kill to have No. 18 on their team.”

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