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Klee: Even after season of records, playoff questions shadow Peyton Manning

By Paul Klee Updated: January 8, 2014 at 9:10 pm 0

ENGLEWOOD — Staring directly into a low January sun, Peyton Manning squinted his eyes until they almost closed. From the podium, he tolerated the first question.

Do you put too much pressure on yourself in the playoffs?

"I don't believe that to be true," he replied, calmly, Wednesday at Dove Valley.

Was it the sun? Or is Manning simply squinting to figure out if we're serious?

"I guess everybody has a different theory or analysis," he said.

So what of these questions? At this annual segue in the football calendar, they nag like a scratchy sore throat in the high country: what about the 9-11 playoff record?

Here's what I've seen. I've seen a quarterback on a mission. I've seen a guy who knows he can't change playoff history but can change perception with a season unlike any we've seen from a quarterback. There's been something else at work with Manning, something other than winning his requisite 13 games, the AFC's No. 1 seed, a probable fifth MVP award and a possible second Super Bowl ring.

I think Manning wanted all of it. I think he saw this season, with this offense, as the opportunity, once and for all, to muzzle doubts he's the greatest to play the position.

I think he is driven to build an unimpeachable legacy more than he lets on.

"If he wins a Super Bowl with two teams, that's more impressive to me than what (Tom) Brady's done winning three," Broncos great Terrell Davis told me Tuesday.

Early in training camp back in August, Manning saw a teammate climb into a Port-A-Potty and shut the door. Manning fired a football at top speed, rattling the outhouse.

Since then, mostly, he's approached this season with the focus of a businessman closing the deal of a lifetime. He didn't throw four touchdowns in the Thursday night opener against Baltimore; he threw seven. He didn't slip past Brady's record of 50 touchdown passes in a single season; he crushed it with 55.

Go back to the regular-season finale at Oakland. Say Manning doesn't eclipse Drew Brees for the single-season passing record at the end of the first half.

Do we really think he spends the second half wearing a visor on the sideline?

For as often as Manning downplays the significance of individual records, he's too versed in football history to shrug them off. He knew Milt Plum, for goodness sakes.

"Maybe, as you get older, you think more along the lines of, 'Hey, this is a pretty unique opportunity to be in this position, to be one of the few teams playing,'" he said.

Manning recites football history like he's on "Stump the Schwab." Just on Wednesday, he cited counterpart Philip Rivers as a member of "the quarterback class of 2004," a subtle reminder of the draft-day trade that sent Rivers to San Diego and Peyton's brother to New York.

He knows the count. He knows Rivers' teams are 2-0 against his teams in the playoffs. He knows the singular knock on his career is that nagging playoff record.

He knew there were questions about his ability to win in cold weather. In the coldest game of this season, 18 degrees at kickoff against the Titans, Manning unloaded for 397 yards and four touchdowns.

Afterward, he suggested he wasn't trying to answer the cold-weather critics.

Nevermind that he launched 59 pass attempts, the most of his 240-game career.

"I think you always want to have something that drives you, fuels you," Manning said, referring to the Ravens loss that arrived with a thud one year ago Sunday.

Veterans of the boxing ring suggest the first punch can hurt the worst. At that point they know the next shots are coming. If the Ravens loss was a punch to the gut, the Chargers are on a roll capable of delivering a roundhouse to the heart. It says here San Diego is the most dangerous matchup in the AFC playoffs for the Broncos.

Fair or not, these playoffs are a significant ingredient in the football legacy Manning leaves behind.

"The light's at the end of the tunnel for me," he said. "There's no question."

If Manning can hold all of these passing records, and guide the most prolific offense in history to a Super Bowl parade, the questions are answered, at least by smart people.

Maybe then the question isn't where Manning ranks all time, but who ranks second.

He knows that.

He knew Milt Plum, for goodness sakes.

-

Twitter: @Klee_Gazette

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