But here we are, nearly 4 1/2 months later, and the Broncos are still alive and well, and getting ready to play the NFC-champion Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII on Sunday in the same stadium where Clady's season abruptly ended.
The Broncos didn't just survive the loss of Clady, they somehow managed to flourish without him. They plugged in the next man up, Chris Clark, a former tight end with only six career starts, and it was off to the races.
The Broncos led the league in scoring (an NFL-record 606 points) and yards per game (457.3). Manning threw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns, both league records. He was sacked a league-low 18 times in 659 attempts.
And, oh, yeah, running back Knowshon Moreno rushed for a career-high 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns.
"It's always a tough thing when you lose people up front, because you've got to play with each other a lot to get comfortable with one another," left guard Zane Beadles said. "Luckily, in the offseason, Chris got a lot of reps beside me, because Ryan was rehabbing his shoulder. That definitely helped when Ryan went down early in the season, because we had those reps [with Clark] all summer long."
Except for Clady's Lisfranc injury to his left foot, the Broncos' offensive line stayed remarkably healthy. Clark and the other four starters missed only one game to injury: Right tackle Orlando Franklin sat out a mid-October loss to the Colts with a sprained knee and ankle. It was one of only three defeats for the Broncos this season. Franklin returned the next week to help the offense put up 45 points in a win over the Redskins.
"Everybody keeps kind of saying that our line hasn't really been together," Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase said yesterday at Super Bowl media day. "But it's been the same group together all spring up through training camp.
"Chris filled in for Ryan [in OTAs] and early in training camp, and [right guard] Louis [Vasquez] was new. But Manny [Ramirez] was our starting center from the get-go. All five of those guys had been working together [in the offseason]. Ryan came back and then got hurt, and Chris went back in. But they've been working together almost the entire year.
"They've got good chemistry, and they're all smart, which is the No. 1 thing you have to be."
Ramirez started 11 games at right guard last year. He was moved to center in the offseason after the Broncos signed Vasquez from the Chargers. Vasquez was an Associated Press first-team All-Pro selection.
"For Louis to come in and learn a completely new system in 1 year and play as well as he has, my hat's off to him," Franklin said. "And Manny has done a consistently good job for us the last 2 years, this year at center and last year at guard. And Chris, you can't replace a guy like Ryan Clady, but Chris has stepped in and done a terrific job."
Having a quarterback who gets the ball out as quickly as Manning and who can sniff out a blitz better than a beagle can a rabbit, helps soften the blow of losing a blocker the caliber of Clady.
But the bottom line is, the Broncos' line has played well. It did not allow a sack in either of the first two playoff wins, and did not give up more than one sack in a game since Week 13, when Manning was sacked twice in a 35-28 win over the Chiefs.
"Clark has done a good job," said Fox analyst Troy Aikman, who will work Sunday's game with Joe Buck. "He can get overpowered at times. They obviously lost a great player when Clady went down. But you can do some things to help [compensate].
"Peyton really helps that line. He gets the ball out of his hands quickly. But for the ball to come out, the receivers have to get open. Quickly. And they do that. Demaryius [Thomas] and [Eric] Decker are both amazing route runners.
"I don't think they even had to wash Peyton's uniform the last 2 weeks. I saw him get hit once against San Diego [in the divisional round] and go to the ground. But that might've been the only time. Those guys have done a great job up front."
The Seahawks have the league's best defense, but they will have difficulty getting to Manning. He has the second-best sack percentage in league history. He's been sacked more than 25 times in a season only once in his career (29 times in '01) and hasn't been sacked more than 21 times since '02.
"Peyton makes you lift your game to the next level just because you know who you have standing behind you and receiving the snap," Ramirez said. "You don't want to be that guy [who gets him hurt]. We take a lot of pride in trying to protect him."
"They do a heck of a job of protecting him and he does a heck of a job of protecting himself by getting the ball out," NFL Network analyst Steve Mariucci said.
"He doesn't get surprised by a blitz or a coverage very often. That's where a lot of the hits on quarterbacks occur. When somebody's coming free. But that doesn't happen to him very often. He plays a lot of the game before the snap. He has a pretty good educated guess as to what the defense is giving him and what play he wants. The success rate goes up."
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