Posted March 19, 2012

Peyton Manning picks the Broncos

Denver Broncos

After being courted by a number of teams, Peyton Manning has apparently decided to play for the Broncos. (Bill Frakes/Sports Illustrated)

Score one — a big one — for John Elway and the Denver Broncos.

Despite not being a favorite at the opening of the Peyton Manning free-agency proceedings, Denver swooped in and stole the future Hall of Famer, as news came Monday that Manning had decided to play for the Broncos and instructed his agent to begin negotations with the team. That news left the Titans, 49ers and others as disappointed bystanders.

Manning’s move from Indianapolis to Denver could make the Broncos the team to beat in the AFC West, assuming Manning returns to full health before the season. His current conditioning level has been one of the ongoing mysteries in this drawn-out situation, with conflicting reports about how far along he is in his rehab, how comfortable he is throwing the football and so on.

Denver, understandably, is willing to take the risk.

A franchise that has been searching for an elite quarterback ever since Elway retired needed Elway himself to seal the Manning deal. Elway and the Broncos brass met with Manning in Durham, N.C., on Friday to discuss Manning’s future.

At the time of that meeting, there was widespread belief that the Tennessee Titans had leapfrogged into the Manning sweepstakes lead, thanks in part to a hefty contract offer.

But the Broncos reportedly matched Tennessee’s bid — Manning’s deal is expected to be worth $90 million-plus over five seasons, according to a report by Mike Klis of The Denver Post — giving Elway an opportunity to close. And just as he did so many times throughout his storied career, Elway did just that.

A move to Denver brings with it a host of obstacles for Manning: A shaky receiving corps, difficult weather conditions and a murderous 2012 schedule (including the Texans, Saints, Ravens and Patriots), to name a few.

Still, the Broncos did manage to steal the AFC West and knock off the Steelers in last year’s playoffs, despite their issues.

The biggest of those question marks came at quarterback, where Tim Tebow stepped in and memorably helped turn Denver’s 2011 season around. Tebow even tossed an OT touchdown in that postseason triumph over Pittsburgh and looked set to enter next season as the Broncos’ No. 1 QB.

Manning’s arrival obviously changes all of that. Denver now appears set to try to trade Tebow — if anyone has interest in the flawed, but exciting, quarterback.

Elway backed Tebow late in the year and into the start of this offseason, but even prior to the Manning courtship, the Broncos were in the market for a veteran quarterback to step in and push Tebow during training camp.

Instead, Manning will likely push the popular player out of town.

Where and when to deal Tebow will be Denver’s problem for another day. Right now, the Broncos have every right to celebrate Manning’s arrival, given the unlikelihood that this scenario would play out.

It may take Manning several more months to get into playing shape, and Denver now has to get to work surrounding its new franchise player with more talent, but there’s little question that the Broncos will consider themselves a threat in the AFC.

“Manning Watch” is over. “Tebow Watch” has just begun. And the AFC West might have just shifted rather decisively in Denver’s favor.

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