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Horse Tracks: Players energized for final stretch (oh, and Manning is just fine)

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Peyton Manning goes one game without throwing a touchdown pass and suddenly the sports media is in a frenzy that this is the sign of his decline. Luckily, Manning and his offensive coordinator are having none of it, and the team is getting fired up for its final three games.

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Good morning, Broncos Country!

So if you paid attention to the sports media yesterday you might have thought the sky was falling.

And by sky I mean Peyton, and by falling I mean getting old.

Hello? The guy is 38. Last year he was 37. We signed him just before his 36th birthday. All of those ages are old for an NFL quarterback. Remember what our 37-year-old did last season? And, more importantly, remember the last "old QB" we had?

Peyton Manning has been playing football for three decades. Every game he has to make split-second decisions while trying to throw a perfectly placed ball before getting drilled by a couple of 300-pound linemen. Know why he's tired? He. Plays. Pro. Football.

Peyton Manning has been playing football for three decades, and one and a half of those have been as a pro where every game he has to make split-second decisions while trying to throw a perfectly placed ball within two seconds before getting drilled by a couple of 300-pound linemen.

Do you want to know why he "looks tired" or doesn't seem "on his game?"

He. Plays. Pro. Football.

Sure we are used to him having pinpoint accuracy in spite of the pass-rush. Sure he doesn't have the same zip on the ball he used to. Sure he's made some poor decisions on throws that got intercepted. And sure he has less room for mistakes since he doesn't have the arm or the legs he used to have.

Know what else he "used to have?" No running game. No defense to force the other team out of scoring position and allow Manning the luxury of not having to throw five touchdowns a game to keep the team in it.

The media (lookin' at you, Bleacher Report) is just looking for a Peyton storyline, and since they can't hang their hat on Manning's record-setting season, they have to go with the "he's not as good, so he must be done" story, an angle which is ironically older and more tired than Manning.

Reporters were asking Bill Belichick a few months ago if he'd consider a quarterback change after the spry 37-year-old Tom Brady had some off games. Obviously Brady is washed up, having led his team on an 8-1 run since starting an uncharacteristic 2-2. Pfft.

The sky is not falling, and though Peyton is "old," the question is whether he is too old.

I say, definitely not yet.

Big Al (former Bronco Al Williams from The Drive on 104.3 The Fan) agrees with me.

"This has got to be fantasy football owners talking like this. I don't understand this crap. It's not like Peyton Manning is less of a quarterback today than he was seven weeks ago," Williams said.

And it would appear John Elway agrees with both of us.

Manning not throwing mega yards the last two games is partially by design in order to get a balanced offense.

And after Manning missed six out of 20 last weekend, where only four were truly bad passes, I'd say our future Hall-of-Famer is good to go - even if not perfect.

And probably the most important factor - opponents.

I bet Brandon Flowers and the Chargers defense don't think Manning is much less of a threat than he was a few weeks ago at Mile High. Throwing or not, Manning is a tough quarterback to defend since he has a lot of weapons - including but not limited to - a running game.

For the record, there's a healthy respect from both teams there. Emmanuel Sanders noted the impact it will have on the Chargers to have their cornerback return.

"They've got Flowers back and that makes a huge difference," Sanders said. "We have to go out and execute at a high level, go out and do what we do and that is put up points."

Re-energized

I also agree with Big Al on another point - these next few weeks are not the time when players will show fatigue. That happened midway through the season. Teams had had their bye weeks, and had been grinding hard for seven or eight weeks but with no clear end in sight.

But now the end is close, and there is some renewed energy for the final push.

"The tough month is not December," Big Al said yesterday afternoon. "The tough month is November when you can't see the end."

I totally get that. If you've ever run a long-distance race, you know this. The tendency is to start fast out of excitement, then settle in to a comfort-level for several miles. As the pain starts surfacing and the grind becomes monotonous and you are barely halfway, the trek becomes drudgery. But when you see the final mile-marker, you feel like sprinting and are ready to finish strong.

I believe we will see that kind of energy in the Broncos these last three games.

Just listen to them during the week and it already feels different than a few weeks ago - playmakers  who have been injured are starting to come back; starters who need some rest are able to practice via studying film; players are able to practice without pads for a less intense but still focused workout.

I'll be ready to go Sunday. The ankle is feeling fine. I'm ready to rock and roll.   -C.J. Anderson

C.J. Anderson, who has been nursing a sore ankle, appreciated that approach this week.

"You've just got to give it up to Coach Fox and the coaches upstairs for understanding the things that are going on," Anderson said, noting that it may mean getting more into the film to prepare for the game rather than taking reps. "I'll be ready to go Sunday. The ankle is feeling fine. I'm ready to rock and roll."

Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas both had limited roles the past two weeks due to injuries, but both are expecting to contribute in big ways this weekend.

"I'm going to do whatever I have to, to get on the field and try to help my team and be a big influence on the opposite team and try to make some plays," D.T. said.

The wide receiver also believes it will be a "big" impact having him and Julius back on the field.

With Julius back and able to throw the ball and run the ball, the defense will never know what to expect. So I look forward to it. -Demaryius Thomas

"We already have guys that go out and make plays now, and with Julius back and able to throw the ball and run the ball, the defense will never know what to expect," he said. "So I look forward to it."

Brandon Marshall and David Bruton Jr. have been other big impact players, and their teammates have noticed.

DeMarcus Ware believes having Danny Trevathan back and keeping Marshall on the field is only going to mean good things.

"Brandon has been playing really well, been tackling well, making big plays," Ware said. "Having Danny in there with him, you've got two guys really perform really well in the middle and demand their dominance when they're out there playing."

And it will take some dominance.

Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said forcing the Chargers into third-and-long situations is going to be their goal. But Rivers is a smart quarterback who has traditionally been able to convert third downs against the Broncos, thanks greatly to tight end Antonio Gates, who averaged 10.8 yards per catch against the Broncos in week 8.

"[Rivers] is a classy guy. He's a great guy. He's a heck of a player," Del Rio said of the Chargers' leader. "I just know that I have a healthy respect for him. I think he's a good player, and he's a good person. As a competitor, I look forward to the matchup because he's a heck of a challenge."

But Del Rio acknowledged that part of Rivers success has been thanks to Gates.

"Yeah, that helps. Having a guy like Gates helps you convert third downs," Del Rio said, "and in the red zone he's a huge factor."

Rivers knows what Gates is going to do. They have great chemistry, so they connect on a lot of plays.   -Aqib Talib

Aqib Talib noted that the chemistry between Rivers and Gates is a big part of the duo's success in critical situations.

"[Rivers] kind of knows what [Gates] is going to do," Talib said. "He can loft the ball up before he gets into his route, and they have great chemistry, so they connect on a lot of plays."

Keeping the Chargers out of the red zone and "connecting" on said plays will be key, and that will start by putting pressure on Rivers.

Ware, who pointed out that his friendly sack competition with teammate Von Miller is going strong and that will not bode well for Rivers, or any of the final three quarterbacks the Broncos face.

Although Ware is down 3.5 sacks to Miller's 13 on the season, nothing like a little teammate rivalry to keep the game fresh and the defense fired up when it faces Rivers and his potent offense.

"I told [Miller] I need to get four and he needs to get three," Ware joked. "That will give him 16.5, so he'll be leading the league, and I'll be right behind him."

And if you think it's only going to be Miller and Ware excited about sacking Rivers, think again...and then add Malik Jackson to the list.

Jackson sacked Kyle Orton last week after a little conversation and teamwork with Ware. Ware tried going underneath so Jackson could come around to get Orton. That didn't work, so they tried something different.

"I said ‘Hey Malik, I'm going to run around the corner, when the quarterback steps up you better have my back.'" Ware said. As soon as Orton stepped up, Jackson was there to make him wish he hadn't. "Malik looked at me and he was like ‘We got him!' He was pumped."

As they board the plane to San Diego, I believe the rest of the Broncos are too.

12 Days of Broncos!

I am about to embark on a weeklong sailing trip and will be off the grid completely for the next week (I know, I know...you're already feeling sorry for me because I won't get to watch the Broncos embarrass Rivers on his home field, but I'll survive.)

I would, however, appreciate you all letting me know the outcome (I'll be looking for bottles with messages, thank you in advance!)

I will be back just in time to enjoy the holidays with all of you, but in the meantime I have created a little Christmas video just for the MHR crowd (note: I tried to get my colleagues here to join in, but to no avail, so I did what I always do - bribed my kids and family to make fools of themselves in the name of the Broncos. We're good like that.)

Have a great week and enjoy!

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