BALTIMORE -- The MVP discussion does not flatter Peyton Manning. It trivializes what he has done for Denver, what his teammates have done around him.
The award came to him four times in the Indy years, following him home like a puppy on its master’s heels. None of those seasons happened to be 2006, the one that ended with the Lombardi Trophy in his hands. Those two pieces of hardware needn’t be mutually exclusive, although for the last 12 seasons, they have been. Aversion to the MVP chatter does not, however, stem from jinx phobias.
Those three letters shrink-wrap and microwave the story of the 2012 Broncos, now 11-3, on a nine-game winning streak. They have become Manning’s team without sacrificing a broader identity.
Count off the most overpowering snapshots from Sunday’s 34-17 win in Baltimore, and Manning’s image stays on the sideline until No. 3. The leader would be Knowshon Moreno channeling Edwin Moses as he hurdled Ed Reed on a 20-yard run. With that flying leap, he simplified the jobs of highlights-reel editors everywhere.
The runner-up: Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco prone at the brink of the end zone, lying face-down a full seven seconds after failing by inches to run down Broncos cornerback Chris Harris on a 98-yard interception return. Flacco hopped up eventually, all healthy save for his pride. Manning’s 51-yard touchdown pass to Eric Decker came in the third quarter, a blow that would have carried knockout implications if the Ravens hadn’t already gone to the mat.
In theory, this game should have sternly tested the Broncos, who have enjoyed weeks of relatively downy matchups. That’s where the Ravens’ defense still lived as a cartoonish villain -- in theory. On paper, it ranked 24th in the NFL, lower than even the offense (18th) that ushered coordinator Cam Cameron into unemployment last week.
So Manning’s modest 204 yards on 17-of-28 passing might not have been forged from fire, and perhaps MVP voters will consider that relevant. The conversation at this point takes in the whole picture. It’s a fairly smart conversation, dwelling equally on his stats, the comeback from four neck surgeries and a football-free 2011, as well as the transformative effect of his arrival. It’s just not enough, those three letters.
Several Broncos on Sunday referred to the way they were winning games this year to explain the difference between the 2012 team and last year’s 8-8 escape artists with their hide-and-seek offense.
Most avoided directly contrasting Manning with predecessor Tim Tebow, although receiver Demaryius Thomas circled close to that third rail of NFL controversy.
“Having Peyton Manning is a little bigger than Tebow," he said.
He meant the hype around his team more than the influence of each quarterback. He was more willing to make a direct comparison between Manning of the recent past and the present.
“You can see a big difference from OTAs to now,’’ Thomas said, adding that the arm strength, threatened by nerve damage, appears to have returned in full. “It’s both mental and physical.’’
The rhythm of an offense -- a quarterback’s signature -- defies measurement. For Denver, suffice to say it has progressed from garage band to concert jazz trio since the start of the season.
You expected maybe a symphony? The Broncos aren’t there yet. Under Manning, they probably don’t want to get there. His improvisations near the line of scrimmage, at their smoothest, play out like riffs from the heart of his hometown. (For any bucket list backed by proper resources, a New Orleans jazz club must occupy the top 10.)
The rhythm carries through a whole locker room. Harris said Manning addresses the entire team almost every day, a rarity for any NFL player. After the Baltimore game, the Broncos bounced off the field and defensive players sang in the rabbit warren that passes for a visitors’ locker room at the Ravens’ stadium.
They played fabulously last year, and amid the frenzy over Tebow, almost no one noticed. Manning should obscure them even more. After all, that’s what every quarterback does.
But those jazz riffs accompany the defense, too, allowing playmakers like Harris a proper bow on stage. Moreno, the No. 12 pick in the 2009 draft, has veered from bust to devoted teammate waiting and working in the background. When Willis McGahee went down, Moreno surfaced all shiny and ready to leap-frog safeties. His 118 yards on Sunday followed up 119 against the Raiders 10 days earlier.
A fifth MVP would match Michael Jordan, another singular talent who elevated the athletes around him. A second Super Bowl ring would bring him closer to his truest peer, Tom Brady (three), and match youthful contemporaries -- brother Eli and Ben Roethlisberger.
Manning simply discusses wanting to get better every game. He shifts from jazz riff to metronome whenever he reaches a microphone.
“I still have rehab that I have to do and I have strength that I have to recover,’’ he said. “I would not say that I’m all the way back, no.’’
Wherever all the way back resides, there will certainly be room for more hardware. But the trip will render awards redundant and puny. It already has.