KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The courtship of Peyton Manning ended early for the Kansas City Chiefs.
During the offseason, when just about every NFL team in need of a quarterback was making overtures to the four-time MVP, Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt went on record as saying the franchise hoped to be in the derby. It was a rare acknowledgment from the head of an ownership family that rarely speaks publicly, and even more rarely discusses player personnel matters.
But with incumbent starter Matt Cassel the only true option returning, and off a season-ending injury at that, Hunt knew that luring Manning to Kansas City could turn around his team.
He wasn't rebuffed so much as never given a chance.
Manning announced that he would choose between a select few teams, and ultimately signed with the AFC West-rival Denver Broncos — just about the worst scenario the Chiefs could imagine.
Now, the Broncos are flying high at 7-3 and riding a five-game win streak into Sunday's game at Kansas City. The Chiefs (1-9) have been forced to jockey between Cassel and former first-round draft pick Brady Quinn while losing seven consecutive games.
"He looks like the Peyton of old, unfortunately," Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel said glumly.
He may, in fact, be even better.
The 36-year-old has already thrown for 2,975 yards with 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions, and his average of 8 yards per attempt leads the league. His completion rate of 68.5 percent is just off his career-best of 68.8, set before missing all of last season because of a neck injury.
Manning is on pace to set a career high in yards passing, his interception rate would be among the lowest he's had, and his QB rating of 106.2 is currently the second best of his career.
"Really didn't have necessarily a set of expectations, because there was so much unknown, and there still is in some ways," Manning said. "I'm still learning about my injury and body, and I'm still learning about my receivers and my teammates, so it was hard to set realistic goals."
Success was expected, but this much?
"It's kind of hard to imagine," said Broncos coach John Fox, who went with Tim Tebow and Kyle Orton last season before getting quite the offseason gift.
"From afar, you hear about his work ethic, you hear about his football awareness, and his football smarts, football character," Fox said, "but to see it firsthand, to see how he raises folks in the locker room, he's a big part of that."
Manning enters Sunday's game tied with his boss, Broncos vice president John Elway, for the second-most wins by a starter with 148. He's still well behind Brett Favre (186), but his career winning percentage of 67.9 is far better than either of them.
His proficiency is a big reason the Broncos believe they can absorb the loss of running back Willis McGahee, who went on injured reserve this week with a knee injury.
"Peyton's still playing at a high level. He makes everyone around him better," Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali said. "We look forward to playing against him."
Of course, they'd rather be playing with him.
Quinn will be back under center at Arrowhead Stadium, where fans have been revolting for weeks, and where banners have been flown asking for general manager Scott Pioli to be fired.
Cassel struggled as the starting quarterback early in the season, and Quinn took over when he sustained a concussion against Baltimore. Quinn was made the permanent starter, only to sustain his own head injury against Oakland. He was finally cleared just before last week's game against Cincinnati, and came on in the second half when Cassel once again couldn't move the offense.
"One of the keys is trying to keep 18 off the field," said Quinn, who sidestepped a question about exacting a little revenge against the Broncos. He was on their roster last season but never took a snap, and ultimately signed with Kansas City as a free agent.
"I'm just going to do the best job I can," Quinn said, "and hopefully that will be enough."
It hasn't been so far this year.
The Chiefs have led only twice in a game, and their only victory required a franchise-record 18-point comeback at New Orleans. They lead the league in turnovers, the offense has struggled to score, and now an epidemic of injuries has set in. They could have just one offensive lineman who started the season in the same position Sunday.
Many of the problems are traceable to the quarterback position, where Manning surely would have performed better than the merry-go-round that keeps spitting out Cassel and Quinn. The two of them have combined to complete 58.5 percent of their passes for 1,980 yards, with six touchdowns and 15 interceptions. They've also absorbed 22 sacks.
"Look, they're an incredible defense. We have our hands full," Quinn said. "We need to be more consistent. We've had stops here and there, and we have to score more points."
The Chiefs are still hoping to salvage something out of this miserable season, perhaps pluck off a win or two along the way. But their biggest success ultimately could be in failure: They're neck-and-neck with Jacksonville for the NFL's worst record, and the No. 1 overall draft pick.
"It's not one guy's fault. We're all included in where we are right now and we're the only ones who can do anything about it," Crennel said. "I know that if we can continue to pull together and have good attitudes and work to try to get better, some good things will start happening."
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