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Klee: This is Peyton Manning as the world has never seen him

By: Paul Klee
January 20, 2016 Updated: January 21, 2016 at 2:28 pm
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photo - Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning directs the offense after coming in for Brock Osweiler in the third quarter of Denver's 27-20 win over the Chargers Sunday, January 3, 2016 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette
Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning directs the offense after coming in for Brock Osweiler in the third quarter of Denver's 27-20 win over the Chargers Sunday, January 3, 2016 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette 

ENGLEWOOD — His hands, stuffed into the pockets of a hoodie. Indoors, Peyton Manning lifted his visor to get a clearer view. It's a view he's seen, oh, I don't know, 100 times before: Dozens of media members packed into a room, ready to fire off questions for the quarterback about The Big Game.

His 16-game rivalry with Tom Brady. His health. (Always, his health.) How, when he was injured, he watched the first Broncos-Patriots game alongside DeMarcus Ware, from an equipment room in the undercarriage of Sports Authority Field.

"The hot dogs aren't bad in there," Manning quipped.

It all seems entirely familiar, almost preordained: America takes one glance at Sunday's AFC Championship game — Broncos vs. Patriots — and shrugs.

Yeah, that makes sense. It's Peyton Manning. Of course he's in the AFC Championship Game.

But the banner across the marquee is wholly misleading. This is Peyton Manning as the world has never seen him. This is Peyton Manning, underdog, and that will never make sense. The five-star high school recruit, the No. 1 NFL draft pick, the all-time career passing leader. Peyton Manning is the ultimate favorite, not the underdog.

Until now — in what probably is Manning's final game at Mile High, if not anywhere.

"A lot has happened this season that's been very different for me than any other season that I've played in 18 years," Manning allowed.

The Patriots are expected to beat the Broncos. The AFC's No. 1 seed — a team that already beat the Patriots, with a backup quarterback to boot — is an underdog at home. Bill Belichick, Brady and the Patriots enter Mile High as a 31/2-point favorite in Las Vegas, a bigger favorite among the talking heads.

To grasp how odd that is, consider this stunning fact: Over his past 15 seasons, Manning has been a home underdog only three times when he starts and finishes the game. Three times. In 15 seasons. Is that a testament or what?

Peyton Manning, underdog? Doesn't make sense, because it so rarely happens.

But that's where he is, and that's where the Broncos are, on the edge of the most anticipated football game that's been played in Colorado, and there's been a few.

"Now the pressure is not on us," linebacker DeMarcus Ware said. "It's on the other team."

During Manning's first three seasons in Colorado, the Broncos followed the lead of their quarterback: Tee it high, let it fly. As Manning went, so went the Broncos.

The latter is not the case anymore. The Broncos won a regular-season game without scoring an offensive touchdown and won a playoff game by scoring one.

But the former remains true. Denver's in the AFC title game for the second time in three seasons but this week follows Manning's lead as the underdog.

"There are a lot of underdogs on this team, from Chris Harris as an undrafted free agent and is playing really well, to a guy like Shaq (Barrett, the Colorado State alum) who has played consistently and now has an opportunity to do something great," Ware said.

Oh, it's a tired cliché. This Broncos roster, with enough talent on defense to line a Pro Bowl roster and Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and C.J. Anderson on offense? That's an underdog like Joey Chestnut against those hot dogs is an underdog. But this is another turn in the Manning evolution, and they're buying in.

Asked for his confidence level in Manning, Thomas acknowledged they are aware Sunday could be their final tango: "Our confidence is high. It could be our last one, so our confidence is high."

The war of words that erupted Monday from the Broncos defense all the way to Rob Gronkowski's Twitter account won't win or lose the game, but it can impact the game. It's not as if the jawing stops at kickoff, and hot tempers can trigger penalty flags that determine if the Patriots punt or Beautiful Brady earns a first down. Like Mom says, words can be hurtful, particularly in championship games.

"All I can say about Tom Brady is he plays the position the way it's supposed to be played," Manning said.

But NFL observers sold their Manning stock months ago. Each of the four divisional playoff games was decided by six or seven points. But since theirs was a grinder - led by the defense, not by Manning's offense - the Broncos are seen as the weakest member of the Final Four. Sex sells, but so does offense.

No one in the No Favorites League gifted Manning the favorite's role. It's easier to get there than to stay there, especially at the level he's played for almost two full decades.

"He's still the same leader," Thomas said. "He doesn't talk about what he went through or what happened to him."

"This is has been one of the most unique seasons I've ever been a part of," Manning said.

Approaching the finish line, this season also carries with it a new label.

Peyton Manning, underdog? Hard to believe. But the Broncos seem to like it that way.

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Twitter: @bypaulklee

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