1. Chiefs (7-0)  It’s to be a stunning come back under new coach Andy Reid and now the Chiefs stand alone as the league’s just unbeaten team. They need to remain undefeated headed into their farewell week, through a video game at home against the Browns this weekend and also then a pilgrimage to Buffalo before their break. It gets tougher after ~ that, through two meetings with the Broncos in a three-game span after the bye. Jamie Squire/Getty images

At first, when Peyton Manning wake up up indigenous the anesthesia, he was relieved: The pain in the neck the he had lived v for years was gone. As he came to, that stirred in the hospital bed, took stock the his misery-free condition, and also started to press himself upright. Then it happened — his ideal arm buckled beneath him. Surprised, he struggled again to sit up, and also at the moment, he taken his career was in jeopardy.

It was might 2011, and also Manning had checked into Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago for surgical procedure on a herniated disc, a tear in the security ring in his neck that had actually undermined his power after 14 periods with the Indianapolis Colts. The procedure was supposed to solve it, however now as soon as he pushed himself up in bed, his best triceps to be unable come bear his weight. Trying come contain his alarm, the many eminent quarterback in the NFL inquiry his surgeon what had actually happened to his arm. The surgeon defined that the disc had been pressing on a nerve. It would take part time because that the irritation to subside, and for the nerve and also muscle come come back alive.

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But 2 weeks later, Manning’s arm still feeling weak. By this time he noticed that the grip stamin in his hand likewise appeared to it is in affected. “If any type of other component of her body has actually some weakness you go, ‘Well I have the right to probably manage,’” Manning says. “But once you’re a quarterback and it’s your right hand, you certainly came to far as being may be to carry out your job.” His doctors discovered that he had re-herniated the disc, and Manning went back to the hospital because that a 2nd surgery, this one in digital secrecy.

While that waited to heal, Manning mainly disappeared native public view, unwilling to let anyone watch his arm in together feeble condition. “I wasn’t simply going to throw v anybody around watching,” the says. “I to be guarded and also protective.” The NFL was in the midst of a four-month job lockout, which supposed he couldn’t usage the Colts’ infrastructure or trainers, for this reason he searched for a place to rehab unobserved. His old college girlfriend Todd Helton, climate a very first baseman through the Colorado Rockies, argued he come the end to Denver wherein he can work the end secretly and get treatment from the Rockies’ trainers, that were accustomed to dealing with arms.

The first pass Manning threw post-surgery was to Helton, and also they were so concerned with privacy that they saw an secret batting cage beneath the Rockies’ stadium. Helton took up a position about 10 yards away and also held the end his hands. Manning reared back, and also threw.

It’s constantly been an interesting question what Peyton Manning to be given and also what he obtained for himself. In ~ this point, 37 years old, through a zipper scar ~ above his neck, stoop-shouldered and slack-armed contrasted to his youth, it’s safe to conclude that his inherited genetic gifts room the the very least of him. Also in shoulder pads he is lank and relatively unmuscled alongside younger specimens, and also with his shirt off, well, he is no Gatorade commercial.

The upper body atrophied after three surgeries cost him the 2011 season and his task with the Colts, leave him with that piece of stitches together if Zorro tried to cut his shirt off at the collar. However somehow a male with 2 soldered with each other vertebrae start Sunday"s game versus the Washington Redskins playing the finest football that his life and maybe of any kind of NFL quarterback ever: He has actually led the Denver Broncos come a 6-1 record and is on pace to collection single-season documents for touchdowns, yardage and also completion percentage.

All that which renders it complicated to conceive that just 18 months back Manning wondered whether he would ever before play again — the just reminders one occasional pass that shows a telltale wobble, and also dies.

“I don’t believe I throw rather the exact same as before I to be injured,” Manning claims by phone call on his way home from a current Broncos practice. “A the majority of that is injury, a most it is being 37 years old, and a lot is playing through a brand-new team. I’ve had a lot of change. It’s difficult to recognize what percentage is what. I’m just trying to it is in the ideal player I have the right to be in this brand-new chapter.”

Cut by Indianapolis post-surgery, it seemed victory sufficient when Manning made it back to the ar in a Broncos uniform last season and led them come a 13-3 record. Yet those closest come him say the feat was if something underestimated. “I don’t think civilization really understand what that overcame,” says fight it out head coach David Cutcliffe, Manning’s offensive coordinator in ~ the university of Tennessee. According to Manning’s father Archie, he was closer to retirement than anyone knew.

“It was, ‘Am i gonna throw like a 40-year-old man?’ the didn’t want to be the end there if he no belong,” Archie says.

It’s a fact Manning candidly admits, and also for the an initial time discusses without reserve. The he underwent neck surgeries was popular — it was “a windy ordeal,” as he puts that — yet what he there is no talked around freely until currently was just how weak the eight was and also how much he had to walk to recuperate it. The surgeries so diminished him that when he began rehabilitation, he can barely fixed the ball. “I had actually to relearn,” he says. And in the relearning, the learned part things about himself. For one, that says, “That I might persevere.”

Manning to be born v undeniable gifts, a tangle the ribonucleic acids that bestowed top top him gold boyness, a scanning intelligence, and that python-thick arm he gained from his cool and also silvery old man Archie, who remains a legend in ~ Ole Miss and quarterbacked the new Orleans Saints from 1971 come 1982.

But Manning was also born through a congenital weakness: the neck. He to be 16 as soon as his older brother Cooper, a promising wide receiver, received a diagnosis of career-ending spinal stenosis, a collapsing of the spaces between his vertebrae the pressured the spinal cord. Archie insisted his younger boy Peyton and also Eli be completely examined for spinal-cervical weakness, too, and a doctor pronounced teenaged Peyton’s neck curvature a potential problem. It wasn’t poor enough come forbid football, however it was less than ideal.

“Not snapshot perfect,” Manning says.

For 20 years, the golden boyness trumped the not-picture-perfect flaw. In between the periods of 15 and also 35, he never ever missed a video game with one injury. He made every begin for 14 seasons with the Colts, winning 4 most beneficial player awards, and a Super key after the 2006 season. “I’d had actually this wire of an excellent health and great fortune,” he says. “Good protection, great coaches, an excellent linemen, play in a great system. Once you play because that 20 years, and also really, i never had actually to miss a game due to injury, that’s no just good protection. That’s great luck.”

But then the neck started to fray. He occurred a pinched nerve, because that which that underwent surgical procedure in February 2010. Then came the herniated disc and successive surgeries in 2011.

There to be no blueprint for nerve regeneration, Manning’s doctors told him. Periodically nerves came ago 100 percent, and sometimes lock came ago at 50 percent. And also sometimes castle didn’t recuperate at all. There was no timetable, or treatment, and also he can only be patient. “The frustrating component was there was no one to speak to who had this, no various other thrower,” Manning says. “There was no protocol.”

Of all the traits Manning to be born with, the one that served him finest during those months wasn’t his analytical mind or his physics strength, but his painstaking temperament. Manning has always been the most exacting male who has played the position, compulsively meticulous, a turn-over-every-stoner. The quality helped him cope as soon as he finally encountered a trouble he couldn’t fix with arm strength.

“If you have a difficulty with Peyton’s intensity, take it it up through the Lord,” Cutcliffe says.

In July 2011, with his eight still unresponsive, Manning went earlier home to new Orleans because that a sheep of perspective from the world who knew him best, his parents and also brothers. The did a tiny throwing v his younger brother Eli, quarterback for the new York Giants. He and Eli had constantly played a most catch. “We litter the same, with pretty an excellent RPMs walking both ways,” he says. Yet by this time, Manning’s grip was so bad that that couldn’t capture his brother’s passes; the round slipped best through his hands. As soon as he do the efforts to litter it, the ball fluttered weakly through the air. Eli told that frankly, “It looks like you can’t complete the throw and get noþeles on it.”

But it to be Manning’s older brother Cooper who placed his neck injury in the appropriate context and also cured the of any type of self-pity. Cooper had actually been an athlete same to everyone in the family, one all-state large receiver v a scholarship to Ole Miss, as soon as he began experiencing numbness and atrophy in his appropriate bicep. The Mannings flew come the mei Clinic in Minnesota, wherein tests confirmed dangerous degeneration in his spine. He underwent surgical procedure to relieve the pressure on his spinal cord, and also complications set in. After ~ weeks in a wheelchair, he had actually to walk v a cane. All of which Manning had actually witnessed up close, even as his own breakthrough was climaxing.

“I’ve never ever taken it for granted, ever because Cooper’s career was taken native him as with that,” Manning says. “So I constantly had the in perspective, and also I didn’t require a year off to remind me how lucky ns was come play.”

He and Cooper talked, compare their problems — but in truth, Manning realized, there was no comparison. He had obtained a career, and also Cooper hadn’t. “Maybe this was my not-picture-perfect-neck catching up v me finally,” Manning says. “I just thought, wow, I acquired almost two decades out of this neck. Boy, I’m thankful for the moment I’ve had.”

Still, the meticulous component of Manning was unsatisfied. The sought second, and 3rd medical opinions. The flew to Europe four times, trying assorted therapies or promised miracle cures, many of them having to carry out with electro-stimulation approaches to rekindle the nerves. “Some had actually a tiny voodoo to them,” the says. “When you injured and not recovering fast, it’s difficult to i have dissolved those. You never ever knew if one might work, so ns tried a few of those.”

He spent weeks in the weight room pump embarrassingly short weights, five-pound dumbbells. He’d constantly been the kind of human who go 15 repetitions when 10 would suffice, yet no quantity of reps would certainly make the nerve come back faster, and also overwork was the worst thing he can do. Do the efforts to litter was like “stepping top top the gas and there is no gas in the car,” that says.

“Sometimes development was no going backwards,” he adds. “It was simply a genuine test that patience unlike anything I had actually to walk through. There was nothing I could do about it.”

Not just was his eight weak; he had actually a monster sensation the he to be no much longer sure of where it was as soon as he threw. At one suggest he tried come fire a ball and it flew a complete 12 yards large of the target. “It’s tough to explain yet I type of lost awareness the my arm in space,” that says. “When you had the exact same throwing movement for so lengthy — golfers talk around repeating your swing, well, quarterbacks repeat too. However I can not repeat. The was scary. Simply discouraging.”

He combated to store a an excellent attitude, hoping that the arm would certainly somehow dramatically improve in ~ the critical minute, therefore he might show up at the Colts’ training camp. For four months, he woke up every day and also told himself that now was the day his arm would certainly come ago alive. “You talk about being nice disappointed roughly two in the afternoon when you realize now is not the day,” the says.

That September, the key re-herniated however again. This time, Manning sought a permanent solution: a blend to stabilize the neck. It would be his fourth surgery in two years. He sat down through Archie and Olivia, who were came to that his priority be his health and also not football. Manning described that he to be going to give it just one an ext try.

“I’m gonna job-related as hard as ns can, and listen come the doctors,” that said. “And if the doctors say i can’t, then it’s to be a an excellent ride.”

At the begin of the 2011 season, Manning to be in one more hospital bed recovering native a single-level anterior fusion: a spinal specialist called Robert Watkins removed the damaged disc native his spinal cord, fill the space with a bone graft, and also welded the vertebrae together with a plate and screws. This time as soon as Manning woke up, he could barely throw a dart. The video game was prescribed as part of his rehab, yet the an initial time that tossed one, he couldn’t penetrate the dartboard. “I could barely get the point to stick,” the says.

For practically three months he didn’t touch a football. His friend Cutcliffe advised him, “Stop throwing.” Forcing the worry wasn’t healthy, and could develop other troubles in his elbow or rotator cuff, Cutcliffe warned. Also, “It’s bad for you to watch yourself throw poorly. So avoid throwing.”

When the did finally did pick up a football again, it was simply to litter a few gentle lob overcome to his wife, Ashley. There was a sweet to their gamings of catch: In April 2011, the pair had invited twins, Marshall and Mosley. Caring because that the newborns gave Manning a deep contentment also as he faced the possibility of retirement. “I had actually a genuine peace,” he says. “I don’t understand if many people think that, however I had actually a tranquility if this was no to be.”

Compared to being a father, a soccer comeback seemed like a vanity project. “I don’t want to be selfish,” the told Archie. Devotion come parenthood had actually been his father’s biggest talent, and also Manning want the very same for his family. “I’m not certain it would have been as simple if i wasn’t comes home and also playing through them every night,” Manning says. “The one year the lord took my greatest physical gift, he offered me the greatest gift you might have in children. So the was a real equalizer. And also I would take the trade any kind of day of the week.”

When Manning did begin to throw seriously again, he moved slowly and deliberately. For weeks he satellite in former of a mirror and also practiced his throwing motion, over and also over, until it looked familiar again and he could repeat it. “So the was step one,” the says. “I said, ‘At least I recognize where my eight is.’ ”

Step 2 was a December 2011 pilgrimage to the duke campus to start work through Cutcliffe, who had actually watched him since he to be 18 and understood him better as an athlete 보다 anyone other than his father. Cutcliffe designed a routine of baby measures and small measurements, through the idea that rebuilding Manning’s confidence, along with his eight mechanics. “We started at soil zero,” Manning says. “It was an excellent going come someone that knew you from the beginning.”

They functioned in secret, due to the fact that Manning continued to be highly self-conscious and also by no method convinced he might make it back. Though he was no in pain and also the disc trouble had been solved, the surgeries had left his right arm substantially weaker than his left. Stop sessions around Cutcliffe’s collegiate schedule, sometimes in the pre-dawn or at 11 p.m., they began with the simple, fundamental task the regaining the feeling in his hand. “You actually throw a ball with your fingers,” Cutcliffe says. Before Manning can throw one NFL-quality ball, they had to resolve whether he’d have the ability to even host a snap firmly enough.

“The toughest part was the emotions of, you walk from gift as an excellent as there is ~ above earth, come relearning how to do it,” Cutcliffe says. “And the was interesting. It was an interesting difficulty for a guy as good as he is in the world, to need to work top top every solitary minuscule thing.”

They worked on his setup — the same motions he had practiced as a 3-year-old. Every day Cutcliffe filmed Manning’s release, and measured the velocity that his passes and also his eight speed. The number steadily inched up — and then started to show dramatic progress.

Next, Cutcliffe handle “his intention come release,” the subtle moment when a quarterback, feather downfield, renders a decision and begins his an initial movement to litter to a target. Good players in a an additional don’t just shot to break on the ball; they shot to break even earlier, ~ above the “intention” the the quarterback. Manning operated on shortening the time in between his decision and actual release. He got much faster and much more accurate through the day.

“When he experienced himself getting back to his normal, when he could get the ball right into his arm slot, and also felt it, God, the was fun to see,” Cutcliffe says.

In February 2012, Watkins asserted Manning’s neck firmly resolved and fully healed, and also cleared him for NFL play. He was no more at danger of injury than anyone rather on the field. However Manning still had weakness in his triceps; the nerves hadn’t totally regenerated and also the concern of even if it is they ever would remained. Manning would simply need to work approximately it, Watkins said him. “It’s your job to discover to compensate because that that,” Watkins said. The key would be to obtain his legs, core, and also other eight sections as strong as possible.

“What he kind of stated was, ‘I think you deserve to still be a thrower v a weak triceps, but everything else demands to fire nice good,’ ” Manning says.

But that prognosis wasn’t great enough because that the Colts, who on march 6 exit Manning and announced their intention to go young and also draft Andrew Luck with the No. 1 pick. Now a complimentary agent, Manning’s workouts got an included intensity — and also became a source of nationwide theater when he announced he would conduct a series of exclusive auditions for clubs of his choice. He and also Cutcliffe got in intensive preparations for them. “It was a full-court press situation,” Manning says.

On the surface, Manning appeared in fee of the process, indigenous his gracious farewell at a Colts news conference to his cherry-picking of teams he was interested in, stable on the san Francisco 49ers, Tennessee Titans and also Broncos. In reality, Manning was anxious. On march 15 he had actually his very first audition, in front of 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman. That was as nervous together he had been as a collegian in ~ Tennessee trying the end for pro scouts. “Maybe even much more so,” that says. “I can not use felt choose that in part time, due to the fact that I really wasn’t sure of my physical state, ns was still finding out what i could and couldn’t do, and also now someone who was not a friend was going come come and watch.”

Harbaugh and the remainder of the NFL coaches i will not ~ sugarcoat anything, Manning knew, and also he didn’t want them to. After month of secrecy and clandestine workouts, it to be time to reveal himself. He want the harsh truth, a final judgment on even if it is he can still beat the game. The stripped down and underwent a full physical choose a steed on one auction block, mirroring everything.

“I want them to check out me in person,” that says. “All of castle felt my muscles. You can see the atrophy in mine arm and also right pectoral. I want to placed it all the end on table, and also have lock say, ‘Here’s what we think,’ rather than present them a video clip of me. I wanted them come tell me, ‘Hey you look an excellent enough to play for us.’ ”

By the finish of March, the Broncos determined he was great enough and also awarded the a five-year transaction worth $96 million. Yet even then, Manning quiet had substantial strides to make. In July 2012, that went back to brand-new Orleans to sign up with his family for their yearly football camp, and also he did part throwing v his dad looking on. The was 3 weeks away from his first training camp with the Broncos. Archie thought he looked . . . Just okay.

“Wasn’t bad, wasn’t ugly, however it wasn’t Peyton,” Archie says. “I believed he might play, however I no know exactly how his video game was going come change. Ns knew what made the the quarterback he was, but he had a new team, a brand-new system, and also a brand-new body that was playing with. Therefore I had actually no idea he might be as abundant as he was.”

Manning ongoing working on the routine he had attracted up through Cutcliffe, and also the lengthy awaited dramatic run in strength lastly came. And also then maintained coming. As it rotate out, his spectacular debut season with the Broncos, with 37 touchdown passes, was merely an appetizer. How might there be room because that improvement? yet there was. “This year at age 37, he obtained better,” Archie marvels. “He just flat got better.” the pauses. “We gone to this a long time,” he says. “But yeah, us are an extremely proud of him. Let’s save it going. Simply keep the healthy.”

Cutcliffe states that the Manning the this season is lot stronger than last, and in some means than the has ever before been, provided his new emphasis top top legs and core. And he still may not have discovered his finest form. “It’s walking to perform nothing but get much better as he continues to reclaim strength,” Cutcliffe says. Add to his physical advancement the reality that the Broncos have surrounded the with much more weapons and the best supporting actors he has ever before had.

Cutcliffe believes the injury required Manning to be much more exacting in his actions than ever, and that the Broncos’ explosive numbers this season reflect the reality that he has exported those habits to his teammates. He occurred an almost intuitive partnership with his major receivers, Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas and also Eric Decker, ~ a summer of “hard, warm work” with Cutcliffe in ~ Duke. “The whole mentality is recording on and it provides everybody pat better,” Cutcliffe observes.

Nevertheless, it is scarcely believable the the NFL passing leader is a 37-year-old with steel in his neck. Below is one even an ext incredible fact: to this day, Manning’s ideal arm stays slightly weaker 보다 his left. That still works on that appropriate triceps and nerve, yet is resigned come the possibility that they can not ever come completely awake. “I couldn’t tell you even if it is they’ll come back, and also until I protect against playing i won’t stop trying,” he says.

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He provides up for it, the says, with other things. Like timing, recognition, and also disguise. He obtained some advice from bill Parcells, the two-time at sight Bowl-winning coach that is currently an analyst because that ESPN: Parcells, a huge baseball fan, said Manning not to worry so much around throwing strikes, but to think much more like a pitcher and also throw junk. “Can you still gain ’em out?” Parcells asked. Manning responded puzzled, “What execute you mean?” Parcells answered, “There are various ways to relocate the chains. Have the right to you gain it in the finish zone is what matters.”

So this days he thinks less about throwing missiles or glamorous arcs, than about just tricking the opposition and delivering the round to the ideal place. The gold boyness has actually faded; in its place is a guy with a fighter’s face, small eyes and a slightly hooked sleep that keeps the from being pretty, hair mowed brief as a placing green, and expression closed shut, refusing to offer anything far to the opponent. Defensive backs describe trying to check out Manning’s face as he scans the field, nothing relocating under facility except his predatory eyes, “flicking ago and forth,” as Eagles safety and security Earl Wolff says.

He has come to be an skilled in replacing natural gifts with compensatory skills. He is learned he doesn’t need the old velocity, the he can drive the round strongly enough with his legs, and win as much with good decisions as an excellent throws. “Maybe details throws friend don’t do anymore,” Manning says. “Or you litter a little sooner. You discover to change your mind, have actually maybe even much more of a feeling of timing.”

The result is that he now views his career as a kind of break-up image, before and also after. Over there is the before Manning and the ~ Manning — and this one plays totally in a grateful present.

“I yes, really don’t compare myself no longer to how I was before,” he says. “I’ve learned to litter in this state, and I’m simply trying to execute the best I deserve to with the method things are.”