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Is Peyton Manning in Decline?

It was a moment that left fans of the Denver Broncos holding their breaths and fearing the worst. Starting quarterback and future Hall-of-Fame inductee Peyton Manning, who was playing through an illness when facing the San Diego Chargers on December 14, threw what was an ill-advised block during a goalline situation, and Manning suffered a thigh injury that forced him out of action. Manning, to the delight of the Denver faithful eying a future that included a one-and-done playoff run for their beloved Broncos without the team's first-choice QB on the field, eventually returned to the game, and he helped the Broncos defeat the Chargers en route to claiming the AFC West title.

The reality of the situation is that the Broncos will soon have to deal with losing Manning for good, perhaps as quickly as this coming winter. Manning will turn 39-years old next March, and even he cannot outrun the great equalizer that is time. Time caught Michael Jordan. It caught Wayne Gretzky. It caught Derek Jeter, and it will eventually catch up to and swallow Manning. Either he will decide when he believes the time is right that enough is enough, or Manning's body will betray him to the point that he either cannot play or that he feels that being a National Football League quarterback is no longer worth all that comes with it.

Some have suggested that Manning is already slowing down and showing his age this fall. Those individuals would point to the level at which Manning and the Denver offense was thoroughly dominated by the Seattle Seahawks during the Super Bowl this past February, and they would mention that Manning has been held in check over his past three games. Is it possible that those people are ahead of the curve and have noticed that the end of what has been a historic career has already begun before our very eyes?

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe, but I wouldn't start working on your Manning farewells just yet. Only Indianapolis Colts starting quarterback Andrew Luck has more touchdown passes (38) than Manning (37). Manning is third in the NFL in QB rating (106.4) and fourth in passing yards . The veteran of the Broncos is sixth in the league in total completions (346) and in completion percentage (67.1%). Manning is averaging less than one interception per regular season contest, having thrown 11 picks in 14 games. Known for not taking punishment in the pocket, Manning has only been sacked 14 times this season, the same amount Jake Locker has taken in seven appearances this year.

It has been well documented during live football television broadcasts and editions of SportsCenter that Manning has put up better numbers during his Denver tenure than he did while with the Indianapolis Colts. There exists a real possiblity that the clock is striking midnight on Manning being an elite quarterback who deserves to be a Most Valuable Player candidate. Some falls occur quickly and without warning, and those who have been paying attention to the Broncos have seen a far more human Manning as of late.

Look at his overall body of work, however, before reacting to what have been a handful of “meh” performances. Manning is, if you average out the numbers, on pace to finish the season with 42 passing touchdowns, over 4,700 passing yards, and a rating of 106.4. Other than the previously mentioned Luck, only Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots starting quarterback Tom Brady will come close to producing the offensive output the Broncos will have gotten from Manning throughout the campaign.

The 2013 NFL regular season was a one-off for Manning and for the Denver offense, a season of dreams that was a blip on the radar and one for the record books. Manning was never equaling the 55 touchdowns that he tossed last year. Anybody, even the most optimistic Denver follower, would have been foolish in expecting Manning to throw for over 5,700 yards for the second straight season. Statisticians and analysts were not overstating the matter last December when they were saying that Manning was having the best regular season had by any NFL quarterback.

It is far more realistic and more fair to Manning to compare his 2014 stats with those that he produced in 2012 during what was, for him, a good season. Manning ended that campaign with 37 passing touchdowns, 4,659 passing yards, 11 interceptions and a rating of 105.8. Barring a disaster, such as an injury that ends his 2014 season and maybe his career, Manning is well on his way to having what is statistically a better year than what he had two seasons ago. Those numbers do not offer signs that a quarterback is in decline.

It is also worth noting that Manning has faced quality opponents over the past several weeks. The Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills and San Diego Chargers all have winning records. Manning being picked off twice by the Bills on December 7th no longer sends off alarms about the quarterback's play, considering the Buffalo defense is playing as well as is any defense, Seattle's included, in the NFL. Manning posted two touchdowns without a single interception in the victory over the Chiefs. He was sick and banged up against the Chargers, and thus evaluating his numbers from this past weekend is a silly exercise.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Wondering if Manning is on the verge of losing his top-tier status is understandable because of his age, but you're looking in the wrong direction. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees has had a letdown of a season, and he could, depending on what happens during his final two contests, finish the year with his touchdown totals and total passing yards similar  to 2008-2010. The run of Brees, who turns 36-years old in January, throwing for over 5,000 yards in a season will come to an end unless he tosses for 642 yards over his final two outings of the campaign. Possible, considering he's playing Atlanta and Tampa Bay, but still difficult.

Just as with Manning, it is too early to even begin speculating if Brees is no longer the player of old. The Saints as a whole have been a massive disappointment, and they are only in the playoff race in the middle of December because they play in the worst division in football, one that will have a champion that possesses a losing record. Brees has admittedly played poorly at times in 2014, yes, but anybody, even the best of the best, can have a rough year before bouncing back and returning to form.

Do not forget, as well, that the Broncos have a talented rushing attack that has been responsible for grabbing positive stats from Manning. Ronnie Hillman started the season out strong until injuries slowed him down, and C.J. Anderson has been a revelation since becoming Denver's first-choice running back. Anderson is averaging 4.6 yards per carry, and he has gained a total of 679 yards on 148 attempts. Hillman is expected to be fully recovered from a foot injury by the end of December at the latest, and the combination of the two backs should lighten the load for Manning during January football games.

There have, for reasons that escape logic, been pockets of NFL fans who have celebrated Manning's failures ever since he was drafted by the Colts. Those are the people giggling in anticipation as they wait for the all-time great to ride off into the sunset, and they could be in for a letdown this holiday season. The Cincinnati Bengals have been consistently inconsistent in 2014, and the Oakland Raiders are downright awful. Those are the two teams left on Denver's schedule before Manning and the Broncos begin postseason play.

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