DENVER • Michael Jordan couldn’t conquer time. Muhammad Ali failed, too.
Peyton Manning did not attempt the impossible when he defied the clock and his battered neck. He did attempt the improbable.
No doubt, he’s emerged as a victor. Manning delivered another superlative performance, methodically destroying the New Orleans Saints secondary.
He’s not the Manning of 2004, when he was flying higher than any quarterback in NFL history. He’s only very close. He’s patient. He’s courageous. He’s accurate.
And, perhaps best of all, he’s unsatisfied. Manning still believes he has something to prove. He’s still skeptical about his recovery.
“I’m coming off an injury,” Manning said a few minutes after the Broncos’ 34-14 victory. “I think I’m a different player coming off the injury. I’m just working on trying to find my way.”
I, and a few million other observers, disagree with Manning’s humble self-assessment. Manning did not in any way resemble a wanderer while completing 22 of 30 passes for 305 yards and three touchdowns.
He resembled a conqueror.
His comeback from three neck surgeries was not a given. There is extreme peril in defying time.
I will long remember, even while trying to forget, watching from the stands as Jordan dragged around his bloated frame for the Washington Wizards in the spring of 2002. He looked old and beaten.
Even worse was the scene in 1980 when Ali sat dazed in the corner, his eyes filled with confused fear, after a frightening beating at the hands of Larry Holmes.
Manning is living an entirely different story, and he has a strong chance to take this Broncos team on a long ride through the playoffs.
These Broncos were so utterly dominating they sent the majority of their fans home early. When the game ended, there were at least 50,000 empty seats at Mile High. Get ready. These kind of routs could become the norm.
Manning is, of course, the lead actor of this team, but a promising, and perhaps powerful, supporting cast is emerging.
Willis McGahee is one of the NFL’s underappreciated talents, and he showed his value once again. McGahee pounded the Saints for 122 yards, using dance steps to elude tacklers and unrelenting power to knock them flat.
In the fourth quarter, McGahee roared straight up the middle and found safety Malcolm Jenkins waiting for him. The game was decided. McGahee didn’t care. He carried Jenkins for 8 yards on his way to a 15-yard gain.
Manning said, correctly, that defenders pay no attention on play-action passes if they aren’t worried about the run. McGahee makes Manning and the Broncos much more deadly.
It’s hard to remember, even though it was only two weeks ago, how much the Broncos’ season seemed in peril. At halftime of the Chargers game, Facebook and Twitter were filled with Manning doubters. Some lost souls even were calling for the return of Tim Tebow to Colorado. Since then, the Broncos have outscored San Diego and New Orleans 69-14.
Now, the Broncos’ path to the playoffs, and beyond, glows with promise. The Broncos have shown the potential for extreme power, and the schedule is easy. Only one team with a winning record — the Baltimore Ravens — looms on the schedule. Denver could easily roll to seven wins in its final nine games.
Make that at least seven wins.