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‘Next man up’ doesn’t apply with Manning

ENGLEWOOD – It’s one thing for fans to get antsy and a bit frightened when they see quarterback Peyton Manning heading to the sideline for treatment — even though his second-quarter trip Sunday turned out to be for nothing more than damage to the nail on his right thumb.

Players aren’t supposed to succumb to that — especially when the phrase “next man up” is tossed around the locker room more often than dirty socks. One man’s injury is another’s opportunity; all you have to do is look at Sunday’s starting lineup for evidence, since Kevin Vickerson, Derek Wolfe, Chris Harris and Dan Koppen all assumed their first team roles after someone else succumbed. They were the “next men,” and it can be argued that they’ve played as well — if not better — than their predecessor would have.

But no one reasonably expects Caleb Hanie or Brock Osweiler to match Manning’s production. And while the Broncos’ hopes for Osweiler are lofty, they’re banking on them being realized in 2014 or later. Neither can replace a quarterback who isn’t simply a Hall of Famer and one of the best ever, but one who isn’t coasting on past glories and is, in fact, on pace for the best season by a quarterback in Broncos history and the second-best of his career — which would put it among the finest seasons by a quarterback in NFL history.

“I got nervous, but it didn’t look like it was anything too serious,” said Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley.

It wasn’t, and even though Manning’s next pass was incomplete and the one after that was deflected, he connected on 10 of his first 11 passes after halftime following the hit by New Orleans defensive lineman Martez Wilson that led to the thumb-on-helmet collision.

“I’m probably a little bit lucky,” Manning admitted Sunday night.

Still, Broncos coach John Fox didn’t nix the idea of sending the hit up for further review. It appeared that Wilson’s helmet collided with the lower portion of Manning’s face mask — although that was of less immediate concern Sunday than the blood that tricked from Manning’s thumb.

“I’m not really able to comment on what we turn in to the league or what we don’t but that’s one we’ll look at closely,” Fox said.

A second look might reveal more about glimpsing into the abyss of life without Manning than anything illuminating about the hit. Manning has been durable; he had never missed a game prior to his neck surgeries in 2011, and doesn’t receive enough credit for his toughness in amassing a streak of 208 consecutive starts from 1998 through January 2011.

“Plan B,” coupled with an improving defense, might nevertheless be good enough to eke out a division title in an AFC West quartet that looks like the runt of the league’s litter (unless San Diego can pull out of its annual swan dive down the table). But that will be all, as the Broncos now understand what the Colts learned last year — that unless you have the top pick in the draft at your disposal, Manning is the most indispensable, irreplaceable player in the sport.

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