KLEE: Key is keeping Manning upright - and signing autographs

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning calls a play during the first half an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel) Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

ENGLEWOOD • Deep in the concrete underbelly of Bank of America Stadium, Peyton Manning made his best move of the season.

Superstar athletes make this move all the time; we just don’t report it often enough.

It was an hour after the Broncos beat the Panthers. A group of military personnel — three women, two men — stood outside Denver’s locker room in a huddle of American goodness. Manning saw their fatigues and made like Willis McGahee at the goal line.

“Appreciate what you guys do.”

And Manning signed. He signed his autograph again and again and again. The most wanted man in football stopped signing only when one of the soldiers asked for a photo.

His teammates waiting on the bus, a team official said, “Peyton, we gotta go.”

“Hold on,” he replied.

This five-minute exchange of goodwill would have warmed the heart of Scrooge himself.

Here’s the most important game plan for the future of the Broncos: Keep No. 18 signing autographs and not medical insurance forms. If Manning is upright and not horizontal, he can guide the Broncos on a tour of his New Orleans home Feb. 3.

Denver must protect this quarterback.

“Always,” Knowshon Moreno said Wednesday, asked whether keeping Manning clean is the No. 1 priority for a running back on the roster.

Who knew that securing the biggest free agent in sports history would lead to more stress during Broncos games? Nothing quiets a Denver living room like a sack of Manning.

Such is life with a quarterback coming off four neck surgeries. Yes, Manning is healthy and on an MVP level. And yes, every hit, sack or slide is followed with held breath.

Sundays with Manning is like watching your son race around in the peewee league. Have fun … but please, please be safe.

I’m not so certain Manning should be driving and talking to the camera on his Buick commercials. Tossing the ball around with Papa John? Think about those fingers.

That Manning’s health is priority No. 1 hardly qualifies as breaking news. But it should be in focus again after the Broncos escaped a scare at Arrowhead Stadium.

The biggest test of Sunday’s win didn’t come from the Chiefs. It came on the sideline when Manning was issued a concussion test. Soon after Manning released a touchdown pass to Jacob Tamme, linebacker Tyson Jackson did his job and slammed Manning into the turf. Manning put a hand to the back of his helmet as he walked to the sideline.

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“OK,” Manning said afterward of his condition.

Better than KO’d, the state of the Broncos if Manning said otherwise.

The Broncos have built a castle around Manning. Only one team — the Titans — has allowed fewer hits to the quarterback. Only three teams have allowed fewer sacks than the Broncos (16). Not surprising, those three teams — Giants, Patriots and Texans — join the Broncos on the short list of Super Bowl contenders.

The bears on Denver’s offensive line deserve a bear hug.

Right now there are three developments that would prevent Denver from partying in New Orleans.

A) The Broncos butterfingers. Only one Super Bowl champion of the past decade had a negative turnover margin (2008 Giants). Denver is minus-3. New England is plus-24.

“We’ve got to do a good job as far as protecting the football,” coach John Fox said Wednesday.

B) A road game at New England in the playoffs. Manning is 7-13 against the Patriots. As the Patriots turned up the tempo on their no-huddle offense, the Broncos pass rush was neutralized in three straight losses (31-21, 45-10, 41-23).

C) The absence of Manning.

“I think, like I said, I’ve learned a lot about my physical state (later in his career),” he said. “And you learn what you have to do each week, physically, to get ready to play.”

Manning said he was a Tennessee freshman when his autograph became a hot item.

“My dad used to sign a lot. My mother always reminds me, ‘They’re going to stop asking at some point,’” he said. “I’m sure they will. Until then, you’ve got to try to do that.”

Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles asked for Manning’s autograph outside Arrowhead Stadium. Don’t confuse his request for a memento. It doesn’t mean a division rival would hold back on knocking Manning to the ground in their second meeting.

Denver’s priority is allowing Manning to sign all the way to the Super Bowl.

Twitter: @Klee_gazette

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