SAN DIEGO -- Anyone who cares about the Broncos -- or any other contender helmed by an elite quarterback, for that matter -- had to watch the developments of the Green Bay Packers in the last six days with an empathetic wince.
In less than a week, the Packers offense went from potent and in the firm command of the efficient and spectacular Aaron Rodgers to punchless, adrift, and down to a third-team quarterback whose last extended playing time was in college, nearly three years ago.
It's the possibility you don't want to consider if you bleed Broncos orange, Patriots red, white and blue, Saints black and gold or Seahawks neon green. And it's one hit away.
And that's why the defining image of the Broncos' 28-20 win over the Chargers wasn't Demaryius Thomas streaking through a thicket of Broncos blockers and Chargers defenders, or Von Miller tripping up Philip Rivers for his second sack in as many games, or the camouflage-billed hats.
No, it was Peyton Manning, struggling to get up after being hit low by San Diego's Corey Liuget, and hobbling to referee Tony Corrente, when the clock stopped after a timeout was automatically assessed when Broncos medical personnel ran onto the field to treat the quarterback whose ankle has placed him on the mid-week injury reports since Week 7.
That meant the Broncos could not simply kneel away the final one minute and 44 seconds. They had to get one more first down before going into victory formation -- and did, powered by two Knowshon Moreno runs for 10 yards and a Chargers penalty.
But if you're looking for a positive in light of the MRI examination that Manning said he will undergo this week, look at two circumstances.
1: He stayed in the game.
"He wanted to be in. he wanted to be with his guys, man," said defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson. "He's going to fight just like we fight. That's always a plus when you see a 30-plus-year-old guy fighting through his injuries."
- Even after the hit, he was focused on the game and his team, and not his own pain.
"It killed me that we took the timeout," Manning said. "I saw them call timeout, so I was going to take a moment to kind of get it together and then they stuck us with a timeout. I was arguing with the ref over that. I hated to make us call a timeout."
Forty-five minutes later, Manning's ankle was "sore," and he expected it to be the same Monday -- a setback from when it was "feeling better" thanks to the rest afforded by the Week 9 bye, when Manning did not practice in the two sessions before the off weekend.
"I imagine I'll be pretty sore tomorrow," Manning said. "Hopefully tests show nothing and it's just kind of sore and aggravating."
It's a hope shared by the Broncos and their backers near and far -- especially after that moment Sunday afternoon when Manning was slow to arise, and their title aspirations stared into the same abyss that the Packers now face, and that every contender hopes above all to dodge.