Peyton Manning may be healthier now than he was earlier in season

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When Gary Kubiak put quarterback Peyton Manning back behind center in the Denver Broncos' offense Thursday, the coach said he did it because it’s "best for the football team."

Kubiak made it clear he also made the decision because Manning is healthier than he was in November, as in a lot healthier. November is when Manning suffered a tear in the plantar fascia near his left heel -- Nov. 8 in Indianapolis -- and November is when Manning was pulled from a game for a bad day for the first time in his storied NFL career with four interceptions in the Nov. 15 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

"I feel really good about this, I feel good about how far Peyton has come, where he’s at physically, mentally, everything," Kubiak said. "I could see it happening the last two weeks. I’m excited for him to get going."

But now, after Manning’s teammates have seen him throw in practice over the past two weeks, there is a feeling Manning may be healthier with the Broncos on the doorstep of the playoffs -- after being held out of six games and going through a rigorous rehab program -- than he was in October, or even September.

"He looked like the old [No.] 18," wide receiver Demaryius Thomas said. "He's healthy."

"Oh yeah," linebacker Von Miller said. "He looks like you would look at the beginning of a season."

Manning has said the foot injury had bothered him for "some time" even before he suffered the tear in Indianapolis. He also had been treated for rib and shoulder injuries this season before it all caught up to him on the worst outing of his career -- 5-of-20 passing for 35 yards to go with the four interceptions against the Kansas City Chiefs.

The six games Manning missed marked the first time he had missed any games in a season in which he had played. Previously, the only games he had missed in his career was the entire 2011 season after spinal fusion surgery.

"I guess the positive of that is that the rest of your body does get a chance to kind of heal and feel a little better," Manning said. "I try to take advantage of that."

Kubiak said he believed Manning turned the corner in his rehab in the days leading up to the Broncos’ Dec. 28 win over the Cincinnati Bengals -- he still wasn't in uniform for that game -- and that Manning had progressed enough last week to be the backup quarterback against the San Diego Chargers. Kubiak sent Manning into the regular-season finale with just more than eight minutes remaining in the third quarter, and Manning led the Broncos on four scoring drives that resulted in 20 points.

"What I saw physically, watching him work, watching him go about his business the last two weeks ... the way he’s throwing the ball, the way he’s moving around, I don’t have any doubt, he doesn’t have any doubt, so that’s a good thing," Kubiak said.

"I wouldn’t have told Coach Kubiak I was ready to dress out last Sunday had I not felt good," Manning said. "I felt like I put it through a lot of tests during my rehab and tried to really test it, so I felt going into the game Sunday, had no issues coming out [of the game]."

Which all brought Kubiak to Thursday, when he first told Manning and Brock Osweiler, followed by the team, that Manning was ready to start the Broncos' Jan. 17 playoff opener.

"[Thomas] and I were teasing him a little bit, saying, 'Man, we haven’t seen you smile like that in about five or six weeks,'" wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. "I know that he’s happy to be back and everybody is happy for him."

John Elway, the Broncos' executive vice president of football operations/general manager, had said when the team signed Manning in 2012 and DeMarcus Ware in 2014 that "I like Hall of Famers with chips on their shoulders."

And Manning’s return to the lineup, in what could be the final season of his career, now carries with it that little extra edge into the postseason. He had led the league with 17 interceptions when he was pulled from the game against the Chiefs, as his play had suffered with the injuries.

"When you’re not out there playing, it does remind you how fortunate you are to be out there playing," Manning said. "That would be my message to all players out there: When they are healthy, be grateful for it and don’t take it for granted."

Manning was asked Thursday if he was treating this postseason as what could be the final chapter of his career, and he said simply:

"Look, I’d be lying to say I’ve never thought -- I know people say, 'I’m not thinking about that, I’ve never thought about that.' I am excited to be thinking about who we're going to play this weekend, and have the opportunity to help and contribute in some way. As far as anything beyond that, there’d be a time and place for that."