DENVER – Maybe it’s because the forecast calls for the mercury to push toward 60 degrees Sunday, when plenty of fans will be tempted to get in a quick nine holes before heading down to the stadium to fire up the grill.
Or maybe it’s because the Denver Broncos, with so many sidelined superstars, have weathered everything thrown at them in the eventful year since that wrenching loss to the Ravens in last January’s playoffs.
More likely, Peyton Manning just looked over New England’s defense and realized that unless the Broncos beat themselves with fumbles, stumbles and tumbles, the highest-scoring team in NFL history should put up plenty of points on the Patriots.
Whatever the explanation, Manning was as carefree in the week leading up to Sunday’s showdown with nemesis Tom Brady as he’s been in the two years since he traded the blue and white horseshoe on his helmet for the orange-mane mustang.
And even though they’ll be without shutdown cornerback Chris Harris Jr., as long as they play assignment-sound football, the Broncos (14-3) know they should be able to mix it up enough to keep Brady and LeGarrette Blount, coming off a four-touchdown game against Indianapolis, in check to claim the AFC championship.
Manning, who’s thrown for 97 touchdown passes while going 27-7 in two years with the Broncos, was so loose that the news conferences he normally treats like a dip in the cold tub were more like open mic nights at the comedy club.
On Wednesday, he pretended to shed a bit of light on his new favorite city, the name of which he shouted out 44 times from the line of scrimmage during Denver’s playoff win over San Diego last weekend.
“I’ve had a lot of people ask me what ‘Omaha’ means,” Manning said. “It’s a run play, but it could be a pass play, or a play-action pass, depending on a couple of things. The wind, which way we’re going, the quarter and the jerseys we’re wearing. It varies from play to play.”
With the AFC title game looming and the number of reporters quadrupling for his weekly session with the media, No. 18 was at his deadpan best.
Manning didn’t even have to cap his pressers with an “I’ll be here all week; try the veal!” because Elway’s, that swank restaurant owned by, yes, his boss, John Elway, catered lunch. So, it was more like, try the carved tenderloin and the Loch Duart Scottish Salmon.
These certainly are heady times in the Mile High City. After all, the Broncos scored a record 606 points this season, and they’re favored Sunday for the 29th consecutive game.
Plus, it’s been 15 years since Elway won his second consecutive Super Bowl and then rode off into that orange Rocky Mountain sunset.
Although Manning owns a pedestrian 4-10 record in games against Brady, this one’s not at frigid Foxborough, where he lost 34-31 in overtime in November. And this time, Manning needn’t bundle up on the sideline between series.
Plus, he’s got the better supporting cast for a change.
Manning set an NFL record for yardage (5,447) and touchdown passes (55) this season, while completing at least 60 passes to an astonishing five players: Eric Decker, Knowshon Moreno, Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Wes Welker.
All five of them reached the endzone at least 10 times, too. No other team in the 93-year history of the league had more than three players score double digit touchdowns.
It’s a pick-your-poison proposition for opponents, who can’t double cover them all. Someone’s always singled up, if not wide open.
Like Julius Thomas was on third-and-17 against San Diego in the waning minutes. Manning ducked the pass rush and hit his big tight end for a 21-yard gain that helped the Broncos salt away the win, finally burying the demons of their loss to Baltimore.
Thomas, who didn’t play in the first matchup against the Patriots (13-4) because of a knee injury, finished with six catches for 76 yards, but none was longer – or bigger – than his 21-yarder.
Manning threw for just 150 yards on a blustery 22-degree night with winds of 22 mph at New England, when Bill Belichick drew up a game plan that dared the Broncos to run. They did, gaining 280 yards on the ground, including 224 from Moreno.
The Broncos not only have their big tight end back for the rematch, but they also have defensive end Jeremy Mincey, a castoff from Jacksonville who’s helped solidify their run defense over the last month. He will be asked to help keep Blount in check.
The Patriots are in unfamiliar territory as both underdogs and visitors. They’ve played their last nine AFC playoff games at home. Their last trip before this weekend came way back in the title game after the 2006 season – when Manning led the Colts to a 38-34 win over Brady’s Patriots.
Prediction: Broncos 45-31.