NFL Axis Stops When Manning Limps Around

Sometimes it’s easier to explain Miley Cyrus, or Dave Chappelle’s career, than the weekly NFL yo-yo. Andrew Luck and the Colts are skidmarked by Kellen Clemens and the Rams. The Jaguars win a game and didn’t have to schedule a high school team to do so. The Cowboys dump Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator and watch him sign with the Saints, who hold Dallas to 17 points while stampeding Ryan’s hapless successor for 40 first downs and 625 total yards. Nick Foles has gone where only two other quarterbacks ever have been, throwing 16 scoring passes without an interception. Tavon Austin, heretofore a 172-pound bust, quieted critics with three touchdowns of at least 50 yards.

It was a day when Cam Newton reminded Colin Kaepernick who had the GQ cover first, a day when the Seahawks finally realized a game encompasses 60 minutes, a day when Detroit took over an unshared divisional lead for the first time in eight years.

But all of those headlines shrink when compared to any chance that Peyton Manning, who has led the Broncos to a league-record 371 points in nine games, could be slowed by a knee injury. If you havent noticed, he has been taking a beating on recent Sundays without his blindside protector, Ryan Clady, and the latest shot — a low hit from San Diego defensive end Corey Liuget in the final two minutes Sunday — could strain the Broncos’ Super Bowl hopes. Manning now has an injured right knee to go with two banged-up ankles, and he looked every bit his 37 years while walking gingerly with a limp. The Broncos are one of those greedy teams that don’t have a proven backup quarterback; Brock Osweiler has thrown only seven career NFL passes.

Remember how the Packers just assumed Aaron Rodgers was indestructible? Manning, he of the four delicate neck procedures, is wobbling. He seems one strategically placed hit — and who’s coming to Denver this Sunday night but the ferocious, sack-happy Chiefs — from another disappointing end to another promising season.

“I’m pretty sore,” Manning said. “They got me twice in that lower area. I felt better coming into the game after the bye week, but I’m pretty sore.”

He wouldn’t confirm the knee injury. “Lower body, (I) feel like the injury report is very revealing to the opponent as well as the folks in Vegas, so I guess somewhere in that lower body.”

What should bother a Broncos fan greatly is that Manning isn’t pooh-poohing the injury as he normally would. Asked if it might bother him the rest of the season, he said, “I hope not. I’d like to be able to shake it.”

It couldn’t at a worse time. The Broncos play the 9-0 Chiefs twice the next three weeks, with a game at New England in the middle of the sandwich. As it is, the team is dealing with the absence of head coach John Fox, who is recovering from heart surgery at his North Carolina home, in a season of tumult, controversy and scandal. With Jack Del Rio serving as interim head coach while trying to fix a struggling defense, the Broncos might be fortunate to win just one of the games in the devil’s triangle ahead. That would push them into wild-card territory, which means they’d be playing the first playoff weekend instead of earning a week off and home-field advantage. Good news is, Manning threw for four touchdowns and 330 yards in the 28-20 victory and is ready to present the game ball to Fox, whenever the players see him next. “I told him not to be yelling at me during the game. It’s not good for his blood pressure,” said Manning, who spoke to Fox by phone Saturday. “I’m not sure we’ll see if he did or didn’t. But he was in our thoughts.”

Despite some foggy results, the NFL is starting to define its playoff picture. Seattle likely will have home-field advantage in the postseason, which they use as well as any team in pro sports. New Orleans and Detroit control divisional leads while Carolina and San Francisco look like the wild-card teams. Dallas and Philadelphia aren’t worthy of a playoff berth but one or the other must win the NFC East. In the weaker AFC, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and New England control their divisions, with Denver and the shocking Jets best aligned for wild cards.

All of which is secondary to the idea that Peyton Manning could be damaged goods. With New York hosting its first Super Bowl, the NFL dearly wants him in its backyard, as do the Madison Avenue ad hustlers who have made him one of sport’s most featured product endorsers and downhome comedians. This is supposed to be the season when he corrects one of football’s glaring discrepancies: He has only one championship ring to brother Eli’s two rings and Tom Brady’s three. WIth an astonishing 3,249 passing yards and 33 scoring passes in nine games, Manning seemingly can be stopped only by injury. “I’m not sure how I caught him, but I hope he is OK,” Liuget said, per the Associated Press. “It’s not anything that is going to stop him from being Peyton Manning.”

Until the next time he is hit.