Knowing as well as anyone that time is no longer his friend, Peyton Manning went looking for a team last summer.
He gambled on the Denver Broncos, and when he signed the contract, the players who were already in Denver got the message: Their new quarterback thought the pieces were in place to win the Super Bowl, and win one quickly.
"You had a guy like Peyton. He had the opportunity to go several places," cornerback Champ Bailey said. "You know he wants to win and he goes to the place that can help him win. It raises your expectations."
On a nine-game winning streak and positioned for a first-round bye in the playoffs, it's safe to say the Broncos (11-3) are living up to what Manning hoped they would be.
They are not a team headed for the playoffs based on smoke and mirrors, the way many critics felt last year's team was with Tim Tebow at the helm. That team finished the season ranked 23rd on offense and 20th on defense.
This year's team is dominating statistically.
— Manning's offense has scored 30 points in all but three games this season. It ranks fifth in the NFL with 387 yards a game, and the quarterback himself (4,016 yards, 31 touchdowns), is in reach of finishing with the second-most yards and passing touchdowns in his 15 seasons.
— The special teams picked up a special returner in Trindon Holliday, who has scored two touchdowns on returns.
— The defense, led by linebacker Von Miller and coached by coordinator Jack Del Rio, is ranked fourth in yards allowed, second in sacks and has allowed the fewest points in the AFC (274).
"They're very fundamental," Browns coach Pat Shurmur said of the Broncos defense his team will face Sunday. "They do a good job against the run. They play well. And it kind of correlates on offense. They've scored 30 points in nine games this year, so you can be just a little bit more reckless when you know on the other side of the ball, you're going to score points."
Manning, of course, was looking for a contender, not a project. His quote on the day he signed — "This is a 'now' situation. We're going to do whatever we can to win right now" — said everything about both his mission and his time frame.
Much has been made of the instant bond he formed with John Elway, the former Broncos quarterback-turned-executive, and the working relationship he knew he'd be able to form with head coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy.
As meticulous as he is, though, Manning said he did not drill down deeply into the Broncos roster when he made his final decision.
"You can't know everything about a team when you're making a decision like that. I'd be lying if I said that I went through every single player on the roster," Manning said. "I had some questions. I met with John (Fox) and met with Mike (McCoy) and met with Del Rio, met with all of them during my visit here and had some questions for them and got those answers and felt comfortable about those types of things."
If Manning was concerned with any single position, it would have been receiver. He essentially brought his old buddy and teammate, Brandon Stokley, along with him. Meanwhile, the top two wideouts already on the roster heard Manning was coming and knew they'd have to up their game.
"We had a lot of good talent last year," Eric Decker said. "The defense was playing well. Offensively, we were doing what we could to move the ball and score points. And to have him add a big piece to our offense has really helped the team in general. And just who he is as a person, who he is as a professional, the guy demands the best out of himself and that carries over to his teammates."
Decker needs 77 more yards to reach 1,000 in receiving for the season, which would make him and Demaryius Thomas the first Broncos duo to reach 1,000 yards each since 2004.
"I never took it as pressure," Thomas said of Manning's arrival. "At least not too much pressure. But he did choose to come here so you know you've got to mind your 'P's and 'Q's. If he comes here and you're a bust, he's saying, 'Man, I could've gone somewhere else.' You don't want him saying that."
NOTES: Broncos OL Zane Beadles was named the team's Walter Payton Man of the Year nomination for his community service work. "I definitely didn't expect it," the third-year player out of Utah said. ... With the field cleared of snow, Denver practiced outside Thursday. OL Chris Kuper (ankle) didn't participate, while FB Chris Gronkowski (hamstring) and DT Kevin Vickerson (groin) were limited. ... The Broncos will be facing their first rookie QB of the season in Brandon Weeden. "He looks like he has the talent to get it done," perennial Pro Bowler Champ Bailey said. "He can make you look back if you let him." ... LB Von Miller said he never sacked Weeden when Miller suited up for Texas A&M and Weeden at Oklahoma State. "I got a roughing-the-passer call," Miller said. "Hopefully, things can be different this season."