January 14, 2016
Peyton Manning threw 17 interceptions this season despite playing in only 10 games, including nine starts. He had just nine touchdown passes. (AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)
Who's the biggest question mark in the Broncos' quest for a championship?
It's the same guy who has been named the NFL's most valuable player five times. The Broncos will make it to the Super Bowl, if quarterback Peyton Manning doesn't mess up.
"In the playoffs, you certainly just want to do your job to help your team win, no matter how old you are or how long you've been playing," Manning said.
The concern is not so much about the nine times Manning has gone one-and-done in the playoffs.
Given a foot injury that Manning admits won't heal until after the season is over, can he stay on the field for the three victories Denver needs to win a championship?
And can a 39-year-old quarterback be trusted to play 12 more quarters of consistent football?
Manning has not been great in a long time. For more than a year, his performance has been barely adequate. In his last 16 games, dating to a victory in November 2014 against Kansas City, Manning's quarterback rating has been 71.7. And that's not good.
Put it this way: Blaine Gabbert is considered a first-round draft bust. During five years in the league, in 37 appearances with Jacksonville and San Francisco, Gabbert's quarterback rating is 71.9.
Denver coach Gary Kubiak awarded Manning the job of starting quarterback for the playoffs based on 18 NFL seasons worthy of enshrinement in the Hall of Fame, but scant recent evidence.
Yes, Manning came off the bench to spark a 27-20 comeback victory against San Diego that nailed down the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. But due to a nagging foot injury, Manning has played only 28 snaps and completed five passes in the past 60 days.
That's not much of a recent track record, especially when you consider 2015 was the worst season of Manning's career. But maybe there is an upside in the lack of activity for a veteran quarterback who missed six games with a partially torn plantar fascia.
"Peyton Manning is a Hall of Famer and a tremendous player. But the best thing you can do for a vet — and the worst thing you can do for whatever team playing that vet — is to give him rest," Broncos defensive end Antonio Smith told me after the victory against San Diego on Jan. 3. "Peyton was out there moving against the Chargers like he hasn't moved all season long. This NFL season really beats up your body, and when you get older, it does more damage than it does to the young guys. I think that little rest (Manning) got while he was injured revamped him, and it happened right at the right time. "
The bye was so essential to the Broncos because it meant Manning would only have to stand behind a shaky offensive line and play three games in a 35-day span during their playoff run in order to win a championship.
After Manning joined Denver as a free agent in 2012, the offense was built around him and it was essential he play well for the Broncos to win big. Listen closely now, however, and it's apparent Kubiak wants to mitigate Manning's influence on the game plan.
"The team that plays better and makes fewer mistakes usually wins any game, but I think that's especially true in the playoffs," Manning said. In his past 16 games with the Broncos, he has thrown 15 touchdown passes and 23 interceptions.
So despite obvious weaknesses in Pittsburgh's pass defense, look for the Broncos to look to run first and use Manning's arm as a secondary weapon.
The Steelers will counter by loading the box and daring Manning to throw deep, where his accuracy outside the numbers is very much a hit-or-miss proposition.
To beat the bruised and battered Steelers, Denver doesn't need Manning to be a hero. To win a championship, the Broncos don't need Manning to be great for 12 consecutive quarters.
Kubiak, however, trusts if Denver needs one clutch drive with the outcome in doubt during the final minutes of a playoff game, Manning is a better bet than Brock Osweiler to deliver the game-winning touchdown.
All the Broncos ask from Manning can be found in the lyrics of a Toby Keith song. They don't need Manning to be as good as he once was.
All Denver needs to win a championship is for Manning to be good as he ever was, just once.
Mark Kiszla: firstname.lastname@example.org or @markkiszla