Collier: Broncos have players other than Peyton

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So what's the call -- you replacement officials -- if Denver super booter Matt Prater runs up on the opening kickoff tonight and whumps that thing all the way to, oh, say downtown Aurora?

Don't overthink it now.

Touchback?

Right. First and 10 Pittsburgh at the 20.

But don't be surprised, either.

As tonight's Steelers opener feels more and more like some elongated continuum of the events of last January's aborted post-season, I see on my notes from that night that Prater's opening kickoff actually thunked off the crossbar.

That would be 75 yards in the air, which is maybe why I'm lately seeing the Steelers losing on a late field goal of 74 yards.

All of this is worth pointing out only because if you've been watching the four-letter network (apparently an annoyingly hip sobriquet for ESPN) or even the three-letter network (NFL), in fact even if you've been watching the one-letter-with-the-exclamation-mark network (E!), you've gotten the unmistakable impression that Peyton Manning is playing the Steelers by himself tonight, 1 against 53. It's all quite understandable on one level, that base level bordered by plausibility on one end and unbelievability, should that be an actual word, on the other.

Some might say it's nearly unbelievable that Peyton Manning will even take the field tonight in Colorado, what with his neck surgeries, his painful and painstaking rehab, to say nothing of his advanced age.

But Peyton has just about always been one of two things, right? He's either been nearly unbelievable, or just plain unbelievable.

The offensive production numbers in the ultimate brainiac quarterback's career are nearly unbelievable, while the approach is just plain ... yeah. The guy conducted the marching band in college. As a rookie in Indianapolis, he was standing in the locker room one day when the owner came in and began addressing the Colts. Manning went to his locker, pulled out a notebook and wrote down everything that got said.

He was, unbelievably, perfectly believable as the host of "Saturday Night Live." On top of all that, now you're supposed to believe that Peyton Manning is driving a Buick with a sticker price of less than $24,000.

Well now it's gone too far, right?

I mean that's preposterous.

The only thing more patently unbelievable is that Shaq is driving the same model in the same color.

But here's something you can believe in, because my sources in the Mile High City have confirmed, after first requesting anonymity because obviously they wouldn't want to be associated with this column, that Manning expects to have a full roster of teammates on hand for this prime time special.

Von Miller, Champ Bailey, Willis McGahee, Elvis Dumervill, Ryan Clady, Eric Decker, all of the professionals you'd expect to torture you in Denver even before Manning extricated himself from Indianapolis will be on hand, and I'm sure you'll remember Mr. DeMaryius Thomas. Had Thomas not escaped Ike Taylor's attempted jumpy neck tackle and covered the balance of 80 yards on the first play of overtime the night of January 8, things might have been very different.

Tim Tebow trashed this same Ryan Clark-less secondary that night, and it's doubtful that only eight months later, Manning will somehow fail to do so. The difference between Tebow and Manning, as I hear the experts explain it, sounds like the difference between the Buick Peyton's allegedly driving and the Maserati he's probably driving. Or at least should be.

Perhaps you're hoping Manning isn't the money player he was before his year of pain-in-the-neck idleness, but the Broncos are willing to spend $96 million over the next five years if he's merely a reasonable facsimile of that player. Even if he's not, the Broncos still have another validated money player on hand at a far more reasonable rate of compensation, and that would their little kicker, the aforementioned Prater.

Waived thrice before he settled in Denver, Prater has emerged as a fairly thunderous force in AFC politics. Had it not been for him, last year's AFC playoffs would have been 100 percent Tebow-free, as it was a booming Prater field goal on the last play of four different games last year that dragged Denver into the post-season at 8-8.

Last December, his 59-yarder against Chicago with three seconds left tied the game, and his 51-yarder in overtime won it. It was the second 59-yarder of a career in which his percentage from 50 yards out or farther (12 for 18) is better than any kicker of the past 40 years. He was 4 for 4 in the post-season last, the first three coming against the Steelers in that 29-23 victory. He was 28 for 29 after the third quarter, and his kickoffs resulted in touchbacks 70 percent of the time, the best such figure in the NFL.

This is the kind of stuff that will make people forget that you missed an extra point in the 2005 Hawaii Bowl.

But sure, Prater's not perfect. Maybe he'll shank three from inside the 30. Maybe Manning will go 13 for 36 with a fumble and two Ike picks.

Stranger things are seen on TV all the time. Look who's driving Buicks.

genecollier


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