With Thanksgiving still a week away Peyton Manning is already on the verge of helping the Denver Broncos run away with the AFC West.
Manning and his Broncos are comfortably atop the division with a 6-3 record and will host second place San Diego on Sunday. A win would give Denver a season sweep of the Chargers and a virtually insurmountable three-game advantage with just six to play.
The cupboard certainly wasn't bare in the Rockies when Manning arrived after sitting out his final season in Indianapolis due to multiple neck surgeries. Denver was coming off a postseason berth and even captured an overtime thriller at heavily favored Pittsburgh despite relying on the limited Tim Tebow at quarterback.
Understanding the team's ceiling was maximized with Tebow running things, John Elway, the Broncos' executive vice president of football operations and one of the few people on earth who can truly call Manning a peer, made the difficult decision to move on from the extremely popular Tebow.
Elway handed the keys to his franchise to a 36-year-old, possibly broken down signal-caller, who also happens to be the only four-time MVP in NFL history.
The early returns were mixed especially after a nationally televised 27-21 loss at Atlanta back on Sept. 17. Those four neck surgeries and nearly two calendar years away from the game showed up in Dixie and Manning looked more than mortal, perhaps for the first time in his career.
The 11-time Pro Bowl selection had the look of a once-elite signal-caller without his signature zip on the ball against the Falcons. Three of Manning's first eight throws at the Georgia Dome were picked off and each looked worse than the one before.
The poor display conjured up images of Johnny Unitas finishing up his brilliant career in San Diego or Joe Namath limping around as a member of the Los Angeles Rams.
Two months later, we now know that was the anomaly.
Manning has taken off, completing at least 70 percent of his passes in six straight games, the longest streak in NFL history. Through Week 10, Eli's big brother ranks second in the AFC with 2,705 passing yards and is first in the conference with 21 touchdown passes.
Manning has become the NFL's all-time leader in 300-yard passing games (69) this season and now has the most come-from-behind victories (48) of any quarterback since 1970.
Another win on Sunday and Peyton can surpass Dan Marino and tie Elway (148) for the second-most regular-season victories as a starter in history. Meanwhile, he's also one TD pass away from passing Marino for the second-most ever and within earshot of becoming just the third player to reach 3,000 passing yards in his first 10 games with any team.
"I'm learning every week about my teammates and about myself in this new role," Manning said. "I think that's going to be ongoing the entire season. If you can have some success while you're learning, winning games, that's obviously a positive thing."
Elway went on record at training camp saying Manning's arm was as strong as it's ever been. He was wrong but it hasn't mattered.
Manning has never been about the Elway- or Brett Favre-like arm. He's always been about the cerebral part of the game. getting his team out of a bad play and into a good one, surveying the field and making the right decision. He's one of the few signal-callers in NFL history who can move effortlessly from progressions one through four on a consistent basis.
"I think you never stop learning," Manning said when asked to describe his philosophy. "I'm in my 15th year, you're still learning but I think we are working to try to get on the same page and trying to be more productive each week than we were the week before.
"The idea is being able to add more to your offense as the season progresses. You certainly want to prevent overloading guys and not letting them think too much. You want these guys to be able to play fast and play aggressive but the more games you play, the more experienced you should be and the better off you should be."
Manning's ability to succeed at a high level with an arm which would be generously described as under whelming if he threw at the NFL scouting combine in February is a direct indictment of the way NFL personnel people grade quarterbacks. Too many think every gunslinger should be able to throw it through a brick wall.
The truth is sometimes Sugar Ray Leonard beats Marvin Hagler. Sometimes Shawn Michaels takes the Undertaker and sometimes the West Coast Offense gets the better of a '46' defense.
Sometimes finesse wins and Manning is living proof of that every time he steps on the field.
"Peyton Manning will beat you with experience," CBS analyst and former Pro Bowl quarterback Phil Simms said. "He's been in control of offenses for so long. He knows the style of offense that is going to work in the NFL. He has a group of plays that he knows is going to work in the NFL. He knows them better than anybody."
That includes the Houston Texans, who remain the prohibitive favorite in the AFC even though Brian Cushing is gone and Matt Schaub still has plenty to prove in the playoffs.
It includes Baltimore, which has been virtually unstoppable in Charm City despite the absences of Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb.
Of course, it's easy to poke holes in any team. It's becoming harder and harder to poke them in Peyton Manning, however.
"I really didn't have really any vision," Manning said when asked about his success in 2012. "I didn't really know what to expect."
The rest of us should have known.
After all, what's past is prologue.
NFL POWER POLL
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THE GAMES (All Times Eastern)
Miami (4-5) at Buffalo (3-6), Thursday, 8:20 p.m.
LINE: Bills by 1 1/2
THE SKINNY: Both the Dolphins and Bills are now in dire straits with Miami two games behind the first place Patriots in the AFC East and Buffalo three games back. The loser this week can forget any hopes of pushing New England down the line. In a virtual must win matchup, expect the Bills to capture their first AFC East triumph of the season probably on a late Rian Lindell field goal.
PREDICTION: Bills 23, Dolphins 20
Tampa Bay (5-4) at Carolina (2-7), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Bucs by 1 1/2
THE SKINNY: The all of a sudden very potent Bucs shoot for a season sweep over Cam Newton and Carolina. The Buccaneers have scored 28-plus points in a team- record five consecutive games behind Josh Freeman, who has thrown 13 touchdowns versus one interception over that span. Meanwhile, "Muscle Hampster" Doug Martin has 858 scrimmage yards in those games, the most by a rookie in a five-game span since Edgerrin James in 1999. Hard to imagine Ron Rivera's club stopping that.
PREDICTION: Buccaneers 28, Panthers 21
Arizona (4-5) at Atlanta (8-1), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Falcons by 9 1/2
THE SKINNY: The Cardinals haven't won since September and that doesn't figure to change against a talented Falcons team smarting from its first loss of the season in New Orleans last Sunday. MVP candidate Matt Ryan passed for career- high 411 yards against the Saints but lost for the first time when recording a passer rating over 100 (29-1). Things figure to return to normal here.
PREDICTION: Falcons 34, Cardinals 17
Cleveland (2-7) at Dallas (4-5), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Cowboys by 7 1/2
THE SKINNY: For whatever reason Tony Romo typically surges in November and the Cowboys signal-caller will be trying to improve on his impressive 20-3 record as a starter and 111.7 passer rating during Turkey Month. Cleveland comes off its bye with rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden needing just 360 passing yards to surpass Tim Couch for the most by a rookie in franchise history.
PREDICTION: Cowboys 24, Browns 14
Green Bay (6-3) at Detroit (4-5), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Packers by 3 1/2
THE SKINNY: The red-hot Aaron Rodgers, who already has 25 touchdown passes, the first quarterback in NFL history to have 25-plus through his team's first nine games in back-to-back seasons, visits a desperate Lions team which needs a win to save their season. Detroit's Calvin Johnson notched his third career 200-yard receiving contest against Minnesota last Sunday and is now two behind Hall of Famer Lance Alworth for the most ever. Johnson had a career- high 244 yards in the Lions' last meeting with the Pack.
PREDICTION: Packers 28, Lions 20
Jacksonville (1-8) at Houston (8-1), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Texans by 15
THE SKINNY: Polar opposites meet in South Texas when the 8-1 Texans host the lowly 1-8 Jags. Houston is 7-3 all-time at home versus Jacksonville and is aiming for the first 9-1 start in franchise history. Texans quarterback Matt Schaub is 12-1 with 18 touchdowns and just seven picks in his last 13 starts.
PREDICTION: Texans 30, Jaguars 10
Cincinnati (4-5) at Kansas City (1-8), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Bengals by 3
THE SKINNY: The Bengals will be searching for their third straight win over a Kansas City team which finally grabbed a lead in regulation, albeit in an eventual loss to Pittsburgh on Monday. Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton had a career-high four TD passes against the Giants last Sunday while K.C. averages an AFC-best 149 rush yards per game despite its poor record.
PREDICTION: Bengals 21, Chiefs 17
NY Jets (3-6) at St. Louis (3-5-1), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Rams by 3
THE SKINNY: The train wreck that is the Jets visits a St. Louis team which nearly pulled off a monster upset in San Francisco. The Rams are a different team with wide receiver Danny Amendola in the lineup. Amendola returned from injury last Sunday to record 11 catches for 102 yards as St. Louis played the mighty Niners to a draw.
PREDICTION: Rams 20, Jets 17
Philadelphia (3-6) at Washington (3-6), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Redskins by 3 1/2
THE SKINNY: The bottom-feeders of the NFC East meet in Landover as Nick Foles takes over at QB for the Eagles. Michael Vick suffered a concussion during a 38-23 home loss to Dallas last Sunday and may have permanently lost his starting job to Foles if the rookie shows anything. Fellow freshman Robert Griffin III, who leads all rookie QBs with a 93.9 passer rating, has already proven to be the long-term answer in D.C. but that needs to start translating into wins rather quickly.
PREDICTION: Redskins 24, Eagles 14
New Orleans (4-5) at Oakland (3-6), Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
LINE: Saints by 4 1/2
THE SKINNY: New Orleans has a chance to get back to .500 in the Bay Area and if Drew Brees' history against the Raiders is any indication, it has a pretty good chance. Brees, who has a TD pass in an NFL-record 52 games in row, is 6-0 and has completed over 70 percent of his passes with 13 TDs and no interceptions in his past six games versus Oakland.
PREDICTION: Saints 31, Raiders 23
San Diego (4-5) at Denver (6-3), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: Broncos by 7 1/2
THE SKINNY: Denver, of course, overcame a 24-0 deficit and became the first team in NFL history to win by 10-plus points after trailing by at least 24 in its win at San Diego on Oct. 15. Manning, who has thrown 10 TDs versus 0 interceptions at home this season, and the Broncos have produced 115 points in the fourth quarter, the second best mark in the league. The Chargers will be searching for their fourth straight win in the Rocky Mountains.
PREDICTION: Broncos 24, Chargers 17
Indianapolis (6-3) at New England (6-3), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: Patriots by 9
THE SKINNY: The Patriots and Colts had one of the NFL's greatest rivalries when Tom Brady was dueling against Manning. The animosity could be rekindled this Sunday when rookie Andrew Luck and his version of the Colts takes aim at Brady and the Patriots for the first time. The high-scoring Pats average an NFL-best 33.2 points per game and 430.3 yards per game and are 7-2 at home against Indy since 2000.
PREDICTION: Patriots 30, Colts 20
Baltimore (7-2) at Pittsburgh (6-3), Sunday, 8:20 p.m.
LINE: Ravens by 3 1/2
THE SKINNY: Byron Leftwich will start at quarterback in the Steelers' key divisional matchup against the first place Ravens. Pittsburgh will enter Sunday night's contest trailing Baltimore by one game for the top spot in the AFC North as Leftwich makes his first start since Sept. 27, 2009 when he was with Tampa Bay. He replaced Ben Roethlisberger in the third quarter of the Steelers' 16-13 overtime victory over the Chiefs on Monday after Roethlisberger sprained the sternoclavicular joint in his right shoulder. The Ravens come in having won 11 straight versus AFC North foes.
PREDICTION: Ravens 23, Steelers 13
Chicago (7-2) at San Francisco (6-2-1), Monday, 8:30 p.m.
LINE: Niners by 4
THE SKINNY: This will be an extremely tough game to prepare for on both sides since each defense will have to game plan for multiple quarterbacks. Both the Bears' Jay Cutler and the 49ers' Alex Smith went down in Week 10 with concussions and both must pass the league's protocol regarding head injuries before being cleared to play.
Chicago has veteran Jason Campbell in reserve while San Francisco has youngster Colin Kaepernick, who could have trouble against the Bears' opportunistic defense. Kaepernick fumbled twice in relief of Smith during Sunday's tie versus the Rams.
San Francisco leads the NFL, allowing 127 points (14.1 per game) and Chicago ranks second with 133 points allowed (14.8 per game). The 49ers' D ranks in the top three in the conference in all three defensive categories: total yards per game (292.1, first), passing yards per game (196.8, third) and rushing yards per game (95.3, third). Conversely the Bears rank second in the NFC in rushing defense (92.3) and third in total defense (307.3) and lead the NFL with 30 takeaways.
"We're 7-2," said Chicago head coach Lovie Smith after the team's 13-6 loss to Houston last Sunday. "We're going to get ready for San Francisco. We have an extra day to get ready for them. There's a lot of football left to go."
PREDICTION: Bears 17, 49ers 14