DENVER -- Peyton Manning's stall was stripped bare in the far corner of the Denver Broncos' locker room, a place of considerable Monday night merriment, when tight end Owen Daniels stood nearby and considered the one conspicuous hole in an otherwise special event. The Broncos had locked down a playoff berth in their overtime victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, and yet something else was virtually clinched in the process:
The fact that Peyton Manning won't be the quarterback determining whether Denver advances to the Super Bowl.
Brock Osweiler is a young man the Broncos believe in, according to Daniels.
"I know we'll do well with whoever we've got," Daniels said. "We've got a GOAT [greatest of all time] and a guy who's up and coming and doing a great job for us. We'll ride with whatever the deal is."
The deal looks pretty simple now. Barring another Osweiler injury to go with his bum shoulder, Broncos coach Gary Kubiak almost certainly won't pull him in favor of a returning Manning on Sunday -- or at some point in the postseason. Meaning the last public act of Manning's NFL career could be the all-out blitz he called on the Al-Jazeera report that linked him to human growth hormone.
"I just think it's kind of a shame, the other stuff that's going on with him," Daniels said. "The guy's done it right his whole career. We know he's toward the end of his career now, and you hate to see people try to do stuff to legends like that. I believe in Peyton, 100 percent. I feel for him that he's got to go through this, but if anyone can handle it, Peyton can."
Manning has no choice but to handle it now. He was all bundled up on the sideline for part of an ice-cold Monday night, and he had to be wondering how his endgame turned so ugly and cruel. If he's telling the truth about the Al-Jazeera report that he started shredding the other day to ESPN's Lisa Salters, then he deserves so much better than what he's getting now.
His body has failed him. His team has moved on without him. His replacement has shown enough strength, poise and youthful vitality to stay in there. And all anyone wants to discuss with one of the NFL's signature players and ambassadors -- in his final football hours -- is whether he once took a walk on the wild side to get back on the field. If this is Manning's final season, wow, it has been some retirement tour. The Broncos might still earn the No. 1 seed in the AFC, might still win the whole damn thing, and Manning might have to watch it all like he watched on Monday night.
In some ways, his contemporary, Kobe Bryant, has it much easier. Bryant is finishing out with a dreadful Lakers team and yet every road trip is defined by a well-earned celebration of his career. On Monday night in Charlotte, Bryant listened as a tribute from Michael Jordan played on the video board. Manning didn't receive any such pregame tribute from John Elway at Sports Authority Field.
And for a while there against the Bengals, Osweiler opened the door a bit for Manning. He was riding a two-game losing streak and developing a nasty habit of disappearing in the second half even before the Bengals took an early 14-0 lead. Osweiler made some bad decisions and took some unnecessary sacks, and soon enough, some of the locals were heard booing him.
He recovered on a breathless touchdown drive to start the third quarter and didn't flinch when Brandon McManus shanked what would have been a winning field goal at the close of regulation. Osweiler completed a couple of huge third-down passes on the winning overtime drive, then stood by as AJ McCarron fumbled the Broncos into the tournament.
Though he said some awfully nice things about Osweiler, Kubiak wouldn't commit to him as his starter for the rest of the season. He didn't need to make it official, nor did Osweiler.
"This isn't about Peyton," the quarterback said. "This isn't about myself. Tonight is about this football team.
"I'm going to show up whether I'm the starter, whether I'm the backup. I'm going to prepare the same exact way. I'm going to be the same exact guy in that building, regardless of the situation."
Frankly, it would have been more fun to see Manning retake control of this team for the stretch run. He would've been a different player, a different person; the Al-Jazeera documentary would've guaranteed it. Manning would've returned an angry man.
If Manning was always clinical in his approach, Tom Brady was always the angry one -- the quarterback who struggled so long and hard just to get the starting job at Michigan before he was taken 199th in the 2000 draft. Brady has played with a controlled fury in defiance of those doubting scouts, smoldering behind that cover-boy face; he was inspired by real and imagined slights even before Deflategate took his emotions to an entirely different place.
Manning? What has he had to be mad about, other than the fact he didn't win the Heisman at Tennessee? Nobody doubted his greatness all the way back to high school. He was the No. 1 overall pick in his draft, an immediate starter and franchise player-to-be in Indianapolis and, soon enough, a commercial endorsement juggernaut just as familiar to American consumers as Flo from the Progressive ads and the Aflac duck.
Yeah, he was fired by the Colts after missing a season and enduring four neck surgeries, and yeah, people would remind Manning of his 5-11 record against Brady and his nine one-and-dones in the playoffs. But he was a five-time MVP who did win the Super Bowl ring that Dan Marino and other Hall of Famers couldn't win. And he was leading a hell of a sporting life until this year. Until the Broncos started phasing him out. Until his 39-year-old body started falling apart. Until Osweiler replaced him.
Until Al-Jazeera reported that an anti-aging clinic in Indianapolis shipped human growth hormone to his wife, Ashley, allegedly for Peyton Manning's use.
The veins in his famous forehead ready to explode, Manning did everything but shoot lasers through your TV screen while trashing the report in his interview with Salters. He denied ever using HGH or any performance-enhancing drugs, and he attacked Al-Jazeera for violating his wife's right to medical privacy. Of course, Manning did not specifically deny that a package from the clinic in question was sent to his wife.
But in giving Manning the benefit of the doubt, it's clear his rage is rooted in the depths of his stunning recovery. In the early hours of his rehab, Manning's parents weren't sure he would ever appear in another game.
"We didn't know how he could play at that position," Archie Manning told ESPN.com in 2013. "I remember when he first started throwing, I mean, it was a 10-yard lob and you just don't know. And you wonder, 'Gosh, can he get back where he can throw in an NFL football game.'"
Peyton would come back to throw for 131 touchdowns and nearly 15,000 yards in his first three seasons in Denver. His career appeared to be headed toward a satisfactory close, with or without the second ring, before Elway fired the head coach (John Fox) and offensive coordinator (Adam Gase) who helped Manning play at a record-breaking pace.
Elway demanded that Manning take a $4 million pay cut, and suddenly the quarterback who used to run Broncos practices like a symphony conductor was being asked by the new coach, Kubiak, to take some practices off. Once the regular season got underway, Manning looked older than his birth certificate as he tried to fight through a foot injury he wanted kept quiet. He threw too many weak and wobbly passes, absorbed too many hits and struggled to adjust to a Kubiak offense better suited for Osweiler.
Manning hadn't played since Nov. 15 and yet was still leading the league in interceptions (17) when Al-Jazeera released its report. He couldn't get out the door unscathed. He couldn't retire before he was accused of PED use and before his vehement denials were measured against those once delivered by the cheating likes of Alex Rodriguez and Lance Armstrong. Archie Manning didn't want to break down the Al-Jazeera film on Monday, but when asked whether he thought his son's anger could make him a better football player if and when he returns, Archie texted this response: "Hopefully. Probably easier if playing LB."
Manning won't be playing linebacker on Sunday against the San Diego Chargers, and he might not play quarterback for the Broncos ever again. Is there a chance Osweiler gets hurt or stumbles or forces Kubiak to recall that Manning did beat Brady in their past two conference championship meetings? Yeah, there's a chance. A small one.
It's more likely Manning will spend more time answering questions from league investigators in the coming weeks than he'll spend behind center. And if he's telling the truth about HGH, this all-time great deserved a much better goodbye than that.