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After season for the ages, he's still the Manning

Coaches, players marvel at No. 18's record year

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- With Peyton Manning on the verge of breaking Tom Brady's single-season touchdown record, Houston interim coach Wade Phillips calls this "just the best year ever of any quarterback."

The Denver Broncos have needed every one of Manning's many exploits to make up for a host of problems.

Before the season even started, the Broncos lost Elvis Dumervil to the Baltimore Ravens in the infamous fax fiasco that made him a surprising free agent, Von Miller to a six-game drug suspension, John Elway's top two lieutenants to drunken driving arrests and not one but two centres to medical issues.

In August, Champ Bailey suffered a foot injury that would turn him into a sideline spectator for most of the year. In September, Manning's blindside protector went on injured reserve.

In October, Manning sustained a high ankle sprain that would force him to miss Wednesday practices on a regular basis for the first time in his career.

'That is plenty on my plate to focus on. I know that's probably not the answer that you're looking for, but that is all my focus is on and that's the way it has to be'

-- Peyton Manning on playing Houston Sunday.

In November, John Fox collapsed on a golf course and needed open-heart surgery. During his absence, safety Rahim Moore needed emergency surgery to save his lower left leg, defensive end Derek Wolfe had a seizure-like episode on the team bus ride to the airport and run-stuffer Kevin Vickerson's went on IR with a dislocated right hip.

This month, captain Wesley Woodyard was benched and slot receiver Wes Welker was sidelined with his second concussion in four weeks.

Yet, Manning has had a season for the ages at age 37, two years removed from the four neck surgeries that weakened his right triceps.

"I think it definitely makes it more remarkable for him to overcome all this adversity," receiver Bubba Caldwell said. "But that's what leaders do and that's what champion players do."

Manning won Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year this week, he's the leading vote-getter in Pro Bowl balloting and he's the odds-on favourite to win his fifth NFL MVP award.

He has the Broncos (11-3) poised to once again secure home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.

Asked what he's seen from Manning so far that would be a priority for his defence on Sunday, Phillips didn't know where to start.

"What haven't you seen?" he asked. "Guy is going to set every record that's ever been in the books as far as touchdown passes, yards, four-touchdown games, it goes on and on."

Manning is four touchdown passes shy of breaking Brady's record of 50 TDs set in 2007. With a career-high 4,811 yards passing, Manning is 666 yards from surpassing Drew Brees' single-season record set in 2011.

Asked Wednesday whether he felt he deserved another MVP honour, Manning laughed off the question, then went down his list of concerns: Welker's concussion, J.J. Watt's disruption, an unfamiliar, unpredictable opponent in the Texans (2-12).

"That is plenty on my plate to focus on," Manning said. "I know that's probably not the answer that you're looking for, but that is all my focus is on and that's the way it has to be."

That single-minded attention is what's helped him overcome so many hurdles in 2013, including his own health issues.

He's been dealing with a high ankle sprain for two months, one that's forced him to sit out one day a week to get treatment and rest.

On one of those, he spent practice in the training room soaking his right ankle in a hot tub while watching video of the Tennessee Titans on his iPad. He had his helmet with him so he could hear offensive co-ordinator Adam Gase's calls to backup QB Brock Osweiler.

It was shown on a CBS broadcast and went viral, the latest example of the quintessential quarterback with the notorious work ethic outworking and outsmarting his opponents.

Tight end Jacob Tamme said: "That's next-level type stuff."

Which is a good way to describe Manning's entire season.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 19, 2013 D4

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