By ARNIE STAPLETON
AP Pro Football Writer
DENVER (AP) - From Peyton Manning overcoming four neck surgeries to Adrian Peterson's rebound from a shredded knee to Chuck Pagano's fight with leukemia, this has been the Year of the Comeback in the NFL.
A season besmirched by tragedies, replacement officials and a bounty scandal also will go down as one in which some of the game's greats not only regained their old form but somehow surpassed it.
There are always feel-good stories about those who overcome long odds and broken bodies to regain at least a sliver of their past glory. This season provided an abundance of them.
When the season started, who could have expected Manning to recapture his MVP play so quickly with a new team? Or for Peterson to come back less than nine months after shredding his left knee. Or for Jamaal Charles to return better than ever after suffering a similar injury.
Then there's Pagano beating the biggest opponent of his life.
A year ago, Manning was in the midst of four neck operations to fix a nerve injury that had caused his right arm to atrophy and had sidelined him for an entire season. Soon, he would say a tearful farewell to Indianapolis, a city he'd put back on the NFL map, and hook up with John Elway in Denver.
Peterson's left knee was still swollen after he'd shredded it on Christmas Eve, an injury similar to the one Charles suffered earlier last season. Yet both would defy medicine and conventional wisdom alike to rebound as better runners than they were before getting hurt.
Pagano's fight started three months ago when it was disclosed he had cancer, forcing the first-year Colts coach to take time off for chemotherapy treatments. He returned to work this week, taking the reins from assistant Bruce Arians, who guided the team to a surprising playoff berth in his absence.
"When I asked for Bruce to take over, I asked for him to kick some you-know-what and to do great. Damn Bruce, you had to go and win nine games?" Pagano said. "Tough act to follow."
If all goes well at practice this week, Pagano will be on the sideline for the regular-season finale against Houston. That's a final tuneup for the AFC wild-card playoffs that nobody saw coming for the Colts so soon after cutting ties with Manning, who switched teams, coaches, cities and colors and didn't miss a beat in 2012.
Despite a new supporting cast and a 36-year-old body he insists continues to confound him, the quintessential quarterback has had one of the best seasons in his storied career. Manning set franchise or NFL records just about every week while completing 68 percent of his passes for 4,355 yards with 34 TDs and just 11 interceptions.
And yet, he insists he's not anything close to what he used to be, that all he can do is maximize what's left in a body that's been slowed by so many surgeons' scalpels, and trips around the sun.
"I know you don't believe me when I say this; I'm still learning about myself physically and what I can do, it's still the truth," Manning said after guiding Denver to its 10th straight win. "I still have things that are harder than they used to be, so (there's) things I have to work on from a rehab standpoint and a strength standpoint. That's just the way it is and maybe that's the way it's going to be from here on out, I don't know."
Maybe Manning's being modest, maybe he's suckering opponents into blitzing him more often so he can burn them again. Either way, it's a remarkable rebound for a man whose right arm was so weakened after one of his neck surgeries that he could hardly throw the football 15 yards.
Long before Manning ever dreamed he'd be wearing the orange-mane mustang on his helmet instead of the blue and white horseshoe, Manning met up with college buddy Todd Helton of the Colorado Rockies for a workout during last year's NFL lockout. They retreated to an indoor batting cage at Coors Field with a trainer in tow, and Manning's first pass nose-dived so badly that Helton told him to quit goofing around.
Manning wasn't messing with him. He was dead serious. His arm was shot, his future in football in doubt. A few days later, he underwent spinal fusion surgery and would miss the entire 2011 season.
If doctors had told him that was it, Manning said he would have called it a career without regret. But they gave him a bit of hope and that's all he needed to embark on his comeback in Colorado.