Throughout the offseason and into last summer's training camps, Peyton Manning's form was the NFL's biggest mystery. Entering the Divisional Round of the playoffs this week, the 39-year-old quarterback remains an enigma.
As a matter of fact, the matchup between the Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh Steelers offers the two biggest mysteries of the week. Let's examine a half-dozen open questions for the second round of the playoffs:
1. Which Peyton Manning will we see?
There are more questions than answers: Is there even a minuscule chance he can recover early 2014 form, before his body started failing him? Is it reasonable to believe Manning can overcome an in-season plantar fascia tear to lead a serious playoff run? If the injury truly goes back to August, does that explain why he was a liability under center for most of the season? Does he have the arm strength to overcome the harsh January elements that have haunted him in the recent past? Would a healthy Manning constitute a competitive advantage versus a banged-up Ben Roethlisberger? Will Sunday's game end up being the legendary quarterback's last rodeo?
2. How beat up are the Steelers?
The Steelers are in wait-and-see mode after a clearly limited Ben Roethlisberger overshot Antonio Brown in Bengals territory, leading to a concussion for the All-Pro wide receiver. Roethlisberger revealed Tuesday that he has torn ligaments in his throwing shoulder in addition to a sprained AC joint. "I honestly don't know," Roethlisberger said when asked if he will start Sunday's game at Denver. Coach Mike Tomlin said his quarterback "has a chance" to play.
Brown will have to pass the NFL's concussion protocol to gain the green light for game action. To this point, there have been conflicting reports about his status. It's highly likely that the Steelers won't know Brown's availability until late in the week. Tomlin is "leaving the door ajar" for running back DeAngelo Williams, but conceded the tailback is "still on the outside looking in" for Sunday's game. We won't know until this weekend just how short-handed Pittsburgh will be after a slugfest with the Bengals in the Wild Card round.
3. Patriots of October or Patriots of December?
An undefeated Tom Brady was rolling toward another MVP award at mid-season when he lost Dion Lewis and Julian Edelman in successive weeks. Lewis isn't coming back, but Edelman is practicing and is fully expected to re-join Danny Amendola alongside All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski. If left tackle Sebastian Vollmer and defensive stars Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower are also close to full health, the Chiefswill be facing the strongest roster the Patriots have shown since Thanksgiving -- when attrition took its toll and losses followed.
4. Is the Packers' offensive renaissance a one-game mirage?
Aaron Rodgers' late-game smiles said it all: He has his mojo back after a three-month slump. The win over the Redskins was the first time all season that Randall Cobb and Davante Adams scored in the same game, and the ground attack was just as strong. For their reward, the Packersdraw a Cardinals defense that sacked Rodgers eight times in a 38-8 laugher three weeks ago. The offensive line has added reinforcements since then, but will Rodgers struggle to move the chains with Adams unlikely to play through a knee injury and James Jones erased by lockdown cornerback Patrick Peterson?
5. Can the Panthers' secondary be exploited?
Ron Rivera and Sean McDermott have shown an impressive ability to coach up their secondary regardless of the talent level. They have their work cut out for them after losing Charles Tillman and Bene' Benwikere late in the regular season. It will be interesting to see if a streaking Russell Wilson can pick on stand-ins Robert McClain and Cortland Finnegan. Throw out the game tape from last week's disappointing showing for Seattle's offense on the third-coldest day the NFL has ever experienced. Wilson is playing the best ball of his impressive career.
6. Does Jeremy Maclin have a prayer to play?
The Chiefs could breathe a sigh of relief when MRI results showed that his ACL was intact, but Maclin remains questionable due to a high-ankle sprain. Although Maclin's name doesn't appear on the Pro Bowl or All-Pro rosters, he's one of the most valuable No. 1 receivers in the league. His 87 receptions, 1,088 yards and eight touchdowns are more than triple the production of Albert Wilson, Chris Conley and Jason Avant combined. This offense simply lacks playmakers beyond Maclin and tight end Travis Kelce.