Broncos' win-now fortunes remain tied to Peyton Manning's aging arm

Peyton Manning has a Super Bowl left in him, perhaps not for long, but for now, and this team was built accordingly. It now must win accordingly.
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DENVER -- Chris Harris tugs the shirt down, down, down over Kayvon Webster’s shoulder. It takes three yanks to stretch the cotton over the ice packs strapped to the younger cornerback’s right shoulder, but eventually, it gives. Eventually, Webster can trudge out into the Denver cold, to a week of rest he and his teammates so desperately need.

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Harris pivots around on his left knee, his left knee that at least looks completely normal, his left knee that he’ll admit still hurts. He’s started 16 games on an ACL he tore not quite a year ago, and yet he is healthy, at least in football-speak. He’s going to do a whole lot of nothing once his season ends, he says, which will be the only way to dull the ache. But that ending -- that isn’t going to come any time soon. At least, it shouldn’t, not for these Broncos, not in a Super-Bowl-or-bust of a season in which they’ve been good enough but not the best.

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When Denver’s players left their locker room Sunday night after a convincing 47-14 victory over the Raiders that guaranteed them a first-round bye, they didn’t know their practice schedule for the week. They didn’t know their next opponent. All they knew is that they ended up only a smidge short of where they hoped to be, with a No. 2 seed instead of a No. 1, with a week of rest and a shot at a trip to Glendale.

"This is what you wait for," Harris said. "You play all season for this moment. … Playoffs, that’s the automatic goal. Winning the division, those are automatic goals. I’m not taking no mental break. Physically, I’ll take a break. I’m in football 24-7. … We ain’t got time for mental breaks."

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Time: It’s these Broncos’ greatest enemy. Not the Patriots, not whichever team they’ll face in the divisional round, not a biting cold January wind. Time trumps all that. Since last March, Broncos general manager John Elway has repeated his mantra, that his team is built to win now and into the future. It’s become a slogan of sorts for the former quarterback, but the premise is suspect. Sure, Denver has a slew of promising young players and has shown the propensity to swing big in free agency. It will be a good team for years to come, but good teams don’t win championships. Great teams do, and one thing makes these Broncos great: Peyton Manning. Over-the-hill, wobbly-passing Peyton Manning, and he’s the reason we’re here, writing these stories, reading them, dissecting this team’s every play. He has a Super Bowl left in him, perhaps not for long, but for now, and this team was built accordingly. It now must win accordingly.

When Manning came to Denver in 2012, it was to earn a second ring. He’s fallen short twice, and he might not get a third mulligan. This is the year, with this supporting cast, with that decades-old arm, but to say that Manning has lost it is nothing if not premature.

"How old is Peyton?" Raiders defensive end Justin Tuck asked Sunday. "Thirty-eight. If I play as well as Peyton at 38, I’m going to be damn happy with it. Everybody talks about how he lost a little zip on his pass, but I don’t run a 4.4 no more. That’s what age does."

Age has put Manning in a sort of limbo, where it’s clear he isn’t what he once was, but where he still flirts with greatness. He will not replicate 2013. He won’t come close, thanks to a robotic neck and a birth certificate that reads 1976. But to say he doesn’t have enough left … Give the man some credit.

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Asked if anything about this season surprised him, Harris pauses. He mentions the time it took the defense to jel -- but, he reasons, that was normal -- and he mentions running back C.J. Anderson’s breakout second half. Not once, though, does he bring up his quarterback. Manning’s reliance on the run? His dismal performance against the Rams? Not a word. Perhaps that’s because Harris doesn’t want to find his locker mysteriously emptied come Monday morning, but more likely, it’s because he knows how this game works, how it ebbs and flows, how it beats the body slowly to a pulp. Few thought Manning would put up numbers this year that were comparable to a season ago. The Broncos left New York a year ago with the plan to win it next time, but they knew they’d have to do it differently.

"We expected to be where we are right now at the beginning of the season,” defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. "Now it’s time to put the words aside and go out and show it with our actions."

Up to now, the Broncos have had to talk. They’ve defended Manning on his so-so days, boasted about the defense’s potential when it lagged. They’ve talked big, talked championship or bust, because the sense always was that they’d get to this point, to this Sunday in December with the playoffs ahead of them.

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What Denver has done this season in some ways makes more sense than what it did a year ago. There was no heart ailment to sideline coach John Fox, no string of season-ending injuries to turn the starting lineup into a MASH unit. Single-season records held up in the face of this offense that's been at times forgettable. This team that went 12-4 thanks to equally strong play on both sides of the ball. It’s won by staying healthy, by adjusting, by compensating.

The Broncos of a year ago never compensated. They just passed, and passed, and passed some more, and when that didn't work, they foundered. That's unlikely to happen again, not with a defense that will be asked to win playoff games on its own, not with running backs who will need to take the load off Manning. To say that’s enough to top New England on the road, to trounce Seattle or Green Bay in Arizona -- well, I’ll leave those boasts to Knighton. But this team is good enough, and it’s not getting any better, and neither is Manning.

The quarterback opened his press conference Sunday evening with a chuckle. "Yeah, I think we’ve got a chance," he quipped, confidence personified. And he’s right. The Broncos do have a chance. He, Peyton Manning, is that chance, and who knows for how many more years.