By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) - Peyton Manning has been plagued by injury and questionable form recently but the New England Patriots are not underestimating the Denver Broncos quarterback's ability heading into their pivotal AFC championship game.
The five-time NFL Most Valuable Player will be two months shy of his 40th birthday when he takes the field for what could be the final game of his storied career but the Patriots know he still can still dominate a game.
"Peyton's a great player. We've had tremendous battles against him through the years," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said on Wednesday.
"There's no player off our team that I have any more respect for than Peyton Manning. So, you know, his preparation, his consistency, his skills, I would never ever, ever underestimate him under any circumstances."
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has won 11 of 16 career meetings versus Manning, and while the former is on top of his game he knows what his on-field rival for decades is capable of.
"To play against those Peyton Manning-led teams you know you have to play 60 minutes and you know you are going to be in for a tough game," Brady told reporters.
"They are going to take advantage of the opportunities they get and we have to take care of the football because you don’t want to give it to these guys on a short field."
Manning's career was cast into doubt in 2011 when he had multiple neck surgeries, missed an entire season and was cut by his former team, the Indianapolis Colts.
But he joined the Broncos and showed that he had plenty left in the tank and has made Denver a legitimate contender in the American Football Conference during each of his four seasons with the club.
Manning appears to be relying more on his veteran savvy rather than trying to find his old form, something that was evident in last week's playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers that put Denver one win away from reaching their first Super Bowl since the 2013 season.
"It's much of the same," Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. "We know what he likes to do, you know, getting the offense out there, being able to survey the defense and look over everything and try to get them in the right place.
"Obviously this year he missed a couple games there, but even watching him last week against Pittsburgh, same thing."
(Reporting by Frank Pingue. Editing by Steve Keating.)