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AFC West's attention on Broncos, Peyton

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John Czarnecki

John Czarnecki has been the editorial consultant for "FOX NFL Sunday" since its 1994 inception. This season marks Czarnecki's 32nd year covering the NFL. He is one of 44 selectors to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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PALM BEACH, Fla.

Anyone who has seen John Elway walk through the stately corridors of the Breakers Hotel here, a seaside playground for the well-heeled, notices the bounce in his step and the broad smile on his face.

Broncos coach John Fox looks like a man who has died and gone to heaven.

These two have swapped a charismatic but inaccurate quarterback for a legendary record-setter.

Whereas Tim Tebow never totally mastered how to properly handle a center snap, the Broncos’ brain trust will have no such fundamental headaches with Peyton Manning, the free-agent NFL acquisition of this decade.

And just like that, the AFC West has evolved into one of the league’s most intriguing quarterback divisions. There’s Manning, Carson Palmer in Oakland, Philip Rivers in San Diego and Matt Cassel — who has won a division title and been voted to the Pro Bowl — in Kansas City.

“He gives Denver instant credibility,” said Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel, who started devising defensive schemes to stop Manning years ago when he worked for the New England Patriots. “He’s been such a great player for 14 seasons, and everyone says he’s healing. I have to believe it will continue as he comes back from that nerve injury. But I can’t say I’m excited about playing him twice a year.”

Crennel got in a bit of hot water when he spoke at the Scouting Combine about having interest in Manning. But no tampering charges were ever dropped on the Chiefs because “I did keep saying that he was property of the Colts,” Crennel said in his defense.

Manning never gave the Chiefs a serious look, and many think the Tennessee Titans might have been his second choice. Manning enjoyed his visit with Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, but the rest of team management didn’t show the same enthusiasm. The Redskins weren't a factor once they made the trade with the Rams for the No. 2 overall pick in this year's draft.

Redskins coach Mike Shanahan had a meeting arranged with Manning, but once he saw Heisman winner Robert Griffin III throw a 70-yarder on a dime, even he decided he didn’t need a veteran quarterback.

But that doesn’t change the dynamics of what should be a tremendous AFC West race. The Broncos are the defending champs thanks to some Tim Tebow magic and also some very poor play by Palmer and Rivers. It's still hard to fathom that Rivers bobbled and lost the ball under center in Kansas City — a turnover that cost the Chargers a potential playoff trip.

Although Fox was initially unsure about starting Tebow last season, the Broncos eventually embraced the option offense with the former Florida Heisman winner. The college offense proved to be difficult for NFL defenses to stop, especially with only three practice days to prepare for it. Tebow also presented problems for defenses, as he is a powerful runner who is equal in size to many NFL linebackers.

This offense is why the Broncos led the NFL in rushing.

“I totally agree with you that the option was difficult and very unusual to defend,” Crennel said, “but I must say that Peyton Manning is also very unusual.”

What makes Manning so difficult to defend, just like Tom Brady and Drew Brees, is that he has a quick mental trigger. He identifies an opening, a hole in the defense, and the ball is out of his hand. All three quarterbacks can make plays in less than three seconds before any pass rush causes a severe headache.

New Raiders head coach Dennis Allen, who was Denver’s defensive coordinator last season, senses that the AFC West could evolve into a pass-happy division.

“Peyton is one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game,” Allen said. “He’s going to be an awesome challenge for all of us to find ways of how to defend him.”

This time of the year was when teams in the AFC South — Tennessee, Houston and Jacksonville — would go through their Manning video to see what worked against him in the previous season. There is no question that those teams are glad to see him in another division.

“Many of us feel the Colts will be a totally different team this season with a young quarterback,” an AFC South coach said. “They were a machine for years with Peyton running the offense. And they always had a bunch of playmakers and were an explosive team. I don’t think any of us are going to know what to expect until we see them on the field in preseason games. None of us can prepare for Andrew Luck right now. We all know what Bruce Arians (former Steelers offensive coordinator now doing the same in Indianapolis) likes to run on offense, but the Colts don’t have Pittsburgh’s personnel.”

Even though the Broncos are sky high about signing Manning, the quarterback won’t be allowed in the team’s facilities until April 16 when he can attend meetings with the coaching staff and players. However, he can only throw on the practice fields under the watchful eyes of the Broncos’ medical staff. The coaches will have to wait until May 2 before getting on the field with Peyton and his teammates. Also, the club still hasn’t produced an offensive playbook. The inside joke is that Peyton doesn’t have it finished yet.

The Raiders’ Allen said he considered talking to coaches who played Manning on a consistent basis but believes it makes more sense to see how Manning uses the Broncos' current receivers and running backs. “We all know what his strengths are and what he likes to do,” Allen said, “but this is a new team. It makes more sense to wait and see.”

Based on current reports, Manning’s arm strength is about 85 percent of what it was before his neck surgeries. But doctors have convinced him and the Broncos that he could be back to full strength in a month if not sooner.

Even if Manning has to throw the ball underhand, the Broncos believe they have a better quarterback than the one who beat the Steelers in the playoffs last season.

Tagged: Broncos, Colts, Chiefs, Raiders, Chargers, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Tim Tebow

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