by Lindsay H. Jones, USA TODAY Sports
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Every few days, Archie Manning's phone will ring early in the morning.
It's even earlier in Colorado, where Peyton Manning frequently makes the most of his time on the 20-minute commute from his home in an upscale suburb of Denver to the Broncos training facility.
Archie Manning has been making it a point not to bother his son too much during his first season in Denver, but this much is clear from those phone calls: Peyton Manning is happy and enjoying football more than ever.
"I know for sure he's not taking it for granted. I think he's elated," Archie Manning told USA TODAY Sports this week. "Peyton's always been a grinder, but I think he's enjoying it more. I think he maybe reflects more, and he's soaking up every moment."
It's not that Manning ever stopped loving football. But after neck surgeries - four of them over 18 months - forced him to miss the 2011 season, Manning has learned to appreciate all of the moments along the way.
And there have been plenty of them in his storied 15-year NFL career. The former No. 1 overall pick out of Tennessee is a four-time league MVP, a five-time all-pro first-team player and a Pro Bowler a dozen times. He led the Colts to the playoffs 11 times and the Super Bowl twice - winning once as the game's MVP - in his 14 seasons in Indianapolis.
He has developed into one of the most recognizable athletes not just in the NFL, but also in all sports. The prolific passer is a prolific pitchman, too, known for his iconic SportsCenter, DirecTV and Papa John's commercials, among others.
Saturday's AFC divisional playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens will mark another milestone in Manning's whirlwind year, one that remarkably began last December when a doctor cleared him to first walk - not lead a team on the field in one of sport's most violent games.
Manning hasn't forgotten that he watched the Colts' 2011 season opener from a hospital bed, and he's aware of the unlikely path he has taken toward Saturday's game.
"I have had those checkpoints along the way and kind of reminders of where I was a year ago, and it just reminds me of how grateful I am for the people that have helped me along the way," Manning told news reporters this week. "I certainly do kind of remind myself how hard I have worked, but I've also received a lot of help, and I'm grateful for that help."
New city, same Manning
In 2012, Manning proved to be nimble, like when he took the unusual step for a quarterback of wearing gloves on both hands to improve his grip in cold weather. (He has gone from Indianapolis' dome to Denver's often-chilly outdoor stadium.) He's willing to evolve with the climate - and, of course, his new team. Manning learned the Broncos' offensive language and worked with offensive coordinator Mike McCoy to combine many pieces of the Broncos' running game with the best elements of the Colts' passing game.
He learned a new offensive language and put up some of the best passing numbers of his career - his yardage and touchdown totals rank second - despite playing with nearly all new teammates. Only wide receiver Brandon Stokley and tight end Jacob Tamme, both former Colts, had played with Manning before.
"When I've come to a new place, it always helps rejuvenate me, re-energize me, and I've told him that it's a good thing to start fresh with a new group," said Stokley, a 14-year veteran who has played with five NFL teams. "I think he's benefited from it, and I think he's enjoyed it."
How many other 36-year-old, four-time MVPs would be willing to try something new?
The reality of what Manning described this week as having to adjust to his "new body" (after neck surgery) and the Colts' decision to release him in March forced him into the second stage of his career. He signed with Denver 12 days after he left Indianapolis and went through his first official workouts with his new teammates about a month later.
"I don't know if he was reinvigorated; he's always pretty invigorated," Tamme said this week when asked about those first practices. "I think it's hard for anybody to watch a year of football, especially for him, playing so many years relatively injury free. That's hard for anybody in this league, so, yeah, I think it was exciting to get out there."
It became immediately clear that the process would happen at Manning's pace. Which is to mean: Fast.
In their meetings, Manning asked coaches to be flexible with his ideas, McCoy said, and his coaches told position players, especially young players like receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, that they had better be prepared to increase their study time to be ready for training camp.
"Everyone else is going to have to keep up. We're not going to wait," McCoy said. "We can't wait for other guys to pick it up."
The results have been impressive as the Broncos enter the postseason riding an 11-game winning streak and tied with the Atlanta Falcons for the NFL's best record at 13-3.
A year after his first post-surgery tosses, Manning was nearly perfect in December: 1,399 passing yards, 11 touchdowns, three interceptions and a 5-0 record, including a 34-17 win against the Ravens in Baltimore on Dec. 16.
The playoffs are just another milestone. He's been here 11 times before, all with the Colts, and last year was merely a spectator as his brother Eli led the New York Giants to a Super Bowl title. Peyton surprised his family, including Eli and Archie, by showing up at the NFC Championship Game in San Francisco, and privately watched the Super Bowl at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis in February, away from his parents and the television cameras.
Now the family will be in Denver on Saturday for his playoff debut as a Bronco, and Archie Manning said he's not letting himself or the rest of his family think about the chance that, with two more wins, Peyton could play a Super Bowl in his hometown of New Orleans, where Archie and Olivia Manning live.
"People remind us of it a lot, but I haven't gone there a lot," said Archie Manning, who spent 15 years as an NFL quarterback but never reached a Super Bowl. "I don't want to sound greedy but we've had a son play in four out of the last six. I'm really not looking that far ahead, because I know how hard it is to get there."
Nothing's a given
Manning's teammates haven't noticed a change in their quarterback as the calendar flipped to January, though there is a noticeable difference in the mind-set at the team's Dove Valley training facility than there was a year ago. That Broncos team also was preparing for a divisional playoff game (on the road vs. the New England Patriots, not at home), but was led by an unorthodox quarterback in Tim Tebow (whom the Broncos traded to the New York Jets shortly after signing Manning), and only a handful of players had postseason experience.
Of the current Broncos, 19 of 22 starters have played in the postseason - but none more than Manning's 19 playoff games. Manning's postseason record is 9-10, a reminder of how difficult it is to win in January.
As much as Manning said he enjoyed being along for his brother's postseason run last year, he didn't need it to remind him of how much he wanted to get back here.
"I've always had a real passion for the game and, like I said, I always kind of played every play or game as if it could be your last," he said. "I didn't need that year off to remind me of that. Maybe some people do, but I knew how much I enjoyed playing while I was playing."
That mind-set might have come from watching his older brother Cooper's football career get derailed before he played a down at Mississippi (the same college Archie and Eli attended) because of a neck injury. Though Peyton was only a teenager when Cooper, a star receiver in high school, was forced to quit playing, he didn't forget it.
"That really affected Peyton," Archie Manning said. "The way he played and the way his attitude has been. I don't think he ever took it for granted. When you miss a year, you don't know how much you miss it until you miss it."
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