Peyton Manning has played in Super Bowls, AFC Championship Games, the Orange Bowl and SEC Championship Games, but the most important game of his career takes place on Sunday when his Denver Broncos take on the Pittsburgh Steelers.
This is the first start in the last chapter of Manning's stellar career. He was much more than a quarterback with the Indianapolis Colts. He was an institution, a perennial MVP candidate and the single most dominant force in the NFL for 13 years.
Reality took over last year, as Manning underwent four neck surgeries in a 19-month span that forced him to sit out the entire 2011 season. For a player who had never missed a game in his professional career, being forced to sit out all 16 games due to physical problems had to be taxing on him psychologically.
Then, in a move that everyone anticipated but still felt surreal, the Colts released Manning last March in order to rebuild their franchise around Andrew Luck, who, like Manning, was taken with the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.
The Broncos' need for a quarterback made Manning a natural fit, so the team went above and beyond to sign him to a seven-year contract. Since Manning is 36 years old, and coming off four neck surgeries, the odds of him seeing the end of that contract are slim.
But that is for the future. Sunday is an entirely new start for arguably the greatest quarterback of this generation. Since entering the league, Manning has never come into a season with more question marks.
We have preseason stats and film to look at, but no one knows how Manning is going to look when the games count. Anyone can look good in preseason.
Now, Manning has to show the world that he still has it, or at least something close to what he was from 1999-2010. He sounds like the same old player, telling reporters this week that he was "tired" after practice and countless interview sessions.
But all the pomp and circumstance is almost over. The analysis of what Manning could do will give way to what he did do for the first time in 611 days.
No matter how many big games Manning has played up to this point, Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers will finally give us some clarity on what he is going to be until he decides to retire.
The Broncos, obviously, believe he still has a lot to offer. Manning is not lacking in confidence. But until you step out on the field, you never know what will happen. The unknown is a scary thing--one that Manning can't afford to take lightly.
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