O'Connor: A diminished Peyton Manning still stands between Patriots and Super Bowl

DENVER -- Wearing a sweat-soaked T-shirt and game pants, his thigh and knee pads still firmly in place, Peyton Manning worked a receiving line of well-wishers near his corner locker Sunday night while his boss, John Elway, looked on approvingly. The quarterback of the Denver Broncos offered up handshakes and, better yet, semi-meaningful eye contact before joining this procession of giddy, middle-aged men for a photo.

On some level, yeah, Peyton Manning is still Peyton Manning. He still does and says all the right things after a game even before he takes a shower. He's the same person, the same face and voice of the league. Just not the same football player, and it's probably not even close.

And that's OK. Manning gets it. He's ready to win ugly at 39 and prove to his teammates he's willing to be a drummer or guitarist in the background rather than the omnipotent leader of the band.

"He's shown with the new offense we've installed that he's a really unselfish guy," tight end Owen Daniels told ESPN.com after the Broncos beat the Minnesota Vikings 23-20 to make Manning a 4-0 quarterback for the seventh time in his career and to make him the NFL's second starter to win 100 home games (Brett Favre won 113).

"Peyton's been doing this so long his way," Daniels continued, "and to have to change things up at this point of his career, you've got to give him credit for being super unselfish like that."

But guess what? Even at a time when he's better described as super unselfish rather than just plain super, Manning might be the one and only player in the AFC who can prevent the New England Patriots from making their seventh trip to the big game in the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era. Take a quick look around the conference. If you believe Andy Dalton is your man for the job, good luck with that.

No, on this day Manning didn't look like someone who could stop the defending champs from winning ring No. 5. His two interceptions nearly cost Denver the game. The first set up Minnesota's touchdown at the end of the first half, and the second set up Minnesota's tying fourth-quarter field goal with 5:11 left.

But Manning responded both times on the next possession. He opened the third quarter with an 80-yard drive finished by his 1-yard scoring pass to Daniels (after two Ronnie Hillman runs failed to punch the ball in), and then he drove the Broncos toward the winning field goal that would've been the winning touchdown had Demaryius Thomas pulled in a very catchable ball.

Manning passed five times on that deciding drive, proof the Broncos know their quarterback has to remain a significant player -- just not their only significant player -- if Manning is to win a second title.

Before that possession, right after Manning threw his second ghastly pick, Broncos coach Gary Kubiak told his offensive assistants the following: "We're going to keep throwing it, because he's the guy that will get us back in position to win the game."

How long will he continue to be that guy? Among the Super Bowl winners of his generation, Manning projects the least amount of confidence in playing multiple seasons beyond this one. Drew Brees has said he will play into his 40s. In a private email to a friend made public, Brady predicted he would go another seven or eight seasons while his frenemy Peyton was down to a measly two.

"Brady and Brees both talk about how long they're going to play, and they may very well do it because they're playing so well now," Peyton's father, Archie, told ESPN.com. "But they haven't had four neck operations like Peyton has. And I hope they don't have to."

Excuse the first father of the NFL for sounding a tad defiant. Archie was the one catching passes for Peyton after those surgeries, the one who saw his own flesh and blood struggle to throw a 10-yard lob.

"It was pretty ugly," Archie said. "It made you wonder if Peyton could ever be an NFL quarterback again, and nobody was sure he could do it. There wasn't anyone to build on. No quarterback or baseball pitcher had gone through what Peyton had. But I've never seen anybody work as hard as he did.

"People are making a big deal out of Peyton losing arm strength and maybe too big of a deal. I heard a few people talk about it that really shouldn't be talking about it, and that's OK. That's the world we live in. No, he didn't come back four years ago with the same RPMs, but I'm proud of the adjustments he's made."

In Peyton's old age, Elway the GM wants to replicate the system once built around Elway the QB, who had this terrible habit of losing Super Bowls until Denver found him a difference-maker at running back. Terrell Davis rushed for 3,758 yards and 36 touchdowns in the 1997 and '98 regular seasons, and then for 1,049 yards and 11 touchdowns in the subsequent postseason runs that allowed Elway to retire with no worries he'd have to face the questions that will forever haunt his contemporary, Dan Marino.

Elway was good for only six touchdown passes against three interceptions in the seven postseason games that made him a back-to-back champ. As relentless as his defense is (and this might be the best defense Peyton has ever worked with), no way Manning will get away with that. He doesn't have a Terrell Davis or an Adrian Peterson behind him. He has got Hillman and C.J. Anderson, two backs who combined for a grand total of 162 yards and 1 touchdown on 60 carries over the first three games.

Hillman hit a home run Sunday, taking a pitch to the left from Manning and racing 72 yards to paydirt. But again, he failed on two cracks near the goal line in the third quarter, forcing Manning to throw his one-yard touchdown pass.

"The more balanced we can be," Peyton said, "I think the more pressure you can keep on a defense. I think for them to not know what you're going to be doing on any first or second down, that's what you're looking for."

The Broncos ran the ball 24 times and threw it 27 times, and Elway and everyone else went home happy. Everyone except the fans longing to see Peyton Manning in his prime.

His 39-year-old throws wobble more than his 29-year-old throws, and every slant pass is an adventure that leaves the crowd holding its collective breath. Manning never had Elway's arm, true, but his off-speed stuff is more off-speed than ever before. That's why Manning joked last week he's a grown-up member of The Bad News Bears trying to foul off pitches and fake his way to first base.

"He knows he's in the twilight," Archie said.

It's a damn good way to go out, in fact. Ever since his surgeries and missed 2011 season, Manning is 42-10 in the regular season with 137 touchdown passes against 41 interceptions, accompanied with a third Super Bowl appearance punctuating his record-smashing 2013. These days he gets jumpy under pressure, and he needs considerable pocket space to step into throws and drive the ball down the field.

But even on a day when a kid, Teddy Bridgewater, seemed like the more dangerous quarterback, Manning still knows how to bring it when the Broncos need it most.

"I'm always trying to improve," he said.

Manning has to improve to beat the Patriots when it counts in January, where he has actually beaten them in their past two AFC Championship Game duels. Some people around the league are already wondering if the Patriots can go 16-0 like they did in 2007, and you can count Manning's father is among them.

"You look at the first three games they played," Archie said, "and you say, 'My God, who is going to beat New England?'"

Probably nobody in the AFC. Nobody except, maybe, a diminished 39-year-old who doesn't need a fastball to find his way out of a jam.