His arm may not be as strong, the result of four surgical procedures on his neck that forced him to miss a year of football. His timing with new receivers may not be as crisp. A month after watching his brother win a Super Bowl in Indianapolis, he was released by the Colts and spent several weeks auditioning teams before choosing the Denver Broncos, where doubts were stacked a Mile High. • But it turns out there still is time left on the clock for quarterback Peyton Manning, which is all he has ever needed to win football games. • "Obviously, it was uncharted territory for me being with a new team, missing an entire season, two things I had certainly never experienced," Manning said Wednesday. "So it was an adjustment process, it continues to be an adjustment process every day.
"It really became more of a performance issue for me. Could I recover my strength? Could I perform? And I really feel like I am a different quarterback. I don't feel like I'm trying to be the quarterback I was when I was 28-29. I'm 36 years old, I'm coming off a season off, I'm with a new team and new teammates. I'm kind of re-establishing myself as a quarterback at this time. It's a totally new chapter of my football career and I'm trying to be the best quarterback I can in this chapter. I'm not really trying to outdo the player I was earlier in my career."
In some ways, Manning has been as good or better. Despite missing all of 2011 recovering from surgery to repair a bulging disc and then cervical neck fusion, Manning has not only survived but thrived. He's the league's second-highest-ranked passer behind the Patriots' Tom Brady with a 104.8 efficiency rating and has thrown 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions. The Broncos are 8-3 and can clinch the AFC West with a win over the Bucs on Sunday.
"He is the epitome of a pro quarterback," Bucs safety Ronde Barber said. "He always has been, and nothing has changed. A different team, the system seems similar to what he was doing in Indy. But he's still very smart with the ball. You don't see any dropoff. I know he had the issue with the neck, but it's a nonfactor on film. He's still putting it where it's supposed to be."
That could mean a long day for the Bucs secondary, which will be playing again without cornerback Eric Wright, who has missed time due to injury and is now suspended by the league. Tampa Bay is ranked last in the NFL in pass defense, having surrendered 51 pass plays of at least 20 yards this season. Manning and the Broncos have 48 pass plays of at least 20 yards this season, a total that includes eight touchdown passes.
"I just can't keep doing this interview without saying, 'I'm really looking forward to this. It's Peyton Manning!' " Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "Arguably I think he's the best QB to ever do it. I'm just being honest. … I'm not going to go in there, star-struck like, 'Ah, that's Peyton Manning!' because I've met the guy before. But I never played against him. Playing against him, it's just like when a basketball player came into the league and they had a chance to play against Michael Jordan."
Perhaps nobody has been more impressed by Manning than Broncos coach John Fox. Early in the offseason, when coaches could have no direct contact on the field with players, Manning organized practice with such precision that Fox said it was like he had "eight coaches on the field."
"I think it's pretty historical what he's done and what he had to overcome to do it," Fox said.
Manning acknowledges he still has much work to do. Even if his arm has lost some zip, he has always beaten teams with his head, dissecting defenses with surgical precision.
"It's hard to know what's different for me and what the reason is because of the variables," Manning said. "I mean, yeah, I'm not sure I can do some of the things I did when I was 28. Is that because of my injury? I don't know. Is that because I'm 36 years old? Could be. Is that because I'm playing with a different team and you're getting on the same page with different teammates? It could be all those, it could be a combination of a couple of them."
That's okay with Manning. He has enough time left for his greatest comeback of all.
"They're 8-3, so three teams figured out how to (beat them)," Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "We're trying to be No. 4."