AFC outlook: Peyton driven to return to Super Bowl, and win it

Broncos' Peyton Manning looks at the scoreboard during Broncos' Peyton Manning looks at the scoreboard during the second half of Super Bowl XLVIII on Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014. Photo Credit: AP / Paul Sancya

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Not that there's ever a time when Peyton Manning doesn't go into a season with any part of his game at peak efficiency, but this was even more of an indication of just how ready Manning is for THIS season.

In an entirely meaningless preseason game against the Texans, Manning was so incensed about a hit on teammate Wes Welker by Texans safety D.J. Swearinger that he stepped out of character for a moment. On the next play after Swearinger's hit on Welker left the receiver with a concussion, Manning threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders and immediately sought out Swearinger.

Some choice words were spoken -- screamed, actually -- and Manning was flagged for the first time in his career with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for taunting. He was also fined $8,268 by the NFL.

"Fifteen yards with five seconds left in the half doesn't hurt you that much,'' Manning said. "I think if you're going to get one that's a good time to get one.''

Money well spent, as far as Manning was concerned. And yet another indication of just how serious the 38-year-old quarterback is about what lies ahead this season. It is a Super Bowl championship, or it is nothing for the man who has accomplished all there is in his sport -- except multiple Super Bowl victories.

Manning got the Broncos to last year's title game at MetLife Stadium after an MVP performance in the regular season. But a 43-8 loss to the Seahawks in the Super Bowl sent Manning into the off-season with a painfully familiar feeling of disappointment. Only once before has he walked off the field on the final Sunday of the playoffs a champion, and here was yet another crushing loss to absorb.

But there was little time for self-pity; Manning quickly turned his frustration into a single-minded focus to get back to the title game. And win the damn thing once he gets there.

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Two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback John Elway, now the Broncos general manager, did his part for Manning by loading up in free agency on the defensive side of the ball, signing linebacker DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward. And Elway brought in another target for Manning in Sanders, the speedy former Steelers wideout.

The window may be closing on the Manning era, but with no outward signs of his game dropping off -- he's coming off a record fifth MVP season -- it's no wonder the Broncos are the AFC favorites once more.

But they're not necessarily a lock. Denver plays in a rugged division with returning 2013 playoff teams Kansas City and San Diego. And the Patriots, who lost to Denver in the AFC Championship Game last season, figure to be playing well into January once more.

Tom Brady had a quiet year statistically -- by his standards, anyway -- with 25 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. But at 37 he remains one of the league's top passers and should benefit from improved play on Bill Belichick's defense.

The Jets? Don't be surprised if they emerge as contenders, especially if they can survive a torturous first-half schedule. And in Indianapolis, Andrew Luck is set to take the Colts past the divisional round.

The annual slugfest that is the AFC North race may produce multiple playoff teams as Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Baltimore go at it. With improvements on defense, the addition of wide receiver Steve Smith and the renewed energy of quarterback Joe Flacco, it won't be a surprise to see Baltimore back in the Super Bowl mix once more.

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