ENTER PEYTON MANNING

The Broncos’ return to the NFL’s elite began with a sales pitch.

But to land free-agent quarterback Peyton Manning and change the franchise, the Broncos couldn’t go for the aggressive sales pitch. Instead, after meeting with him, they let him be until he called their phone again. That’s when the Broncos scheduled a time to come watch a workout.

Manning visited with the Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers and Tennessee Titans after leaving Denver. Meanwhile, John Elway and John Fox sat back and waited. They could tell he was still stunned. The hard sell would not work. They had to let Manning come to his choice in his own time. Don’t come on strong.

“It was a pretty emotional day for him — as it would be for just about anybody, let alone a guy that had been somewhere for 14 years,” Fox said of his first meeting with Manning. “I was respectful of that.

“I was really just seeing how he was doing and what his plans were. I didn’t know what plans he had or any of those types of things. It was a conversation.”

A week after visiting with him, Broncos officials attended Manning’s workout at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. So intense was the speculation and spotlight that the van carrying Broncos officials was tracked and filmed by a Raleigh-Durham television news crew, and the feed was sent to ESPN and the NFL Network.

After the workout, again, Elway and Fox let Manning reflect on the choices in front of him: Denver, Tennessee, or San Francisco.

Three days after the workout and 10 days after Manning’s visit, Fox was in Elway’s office talking about personnel matters. The phone rang.

“I think we both froze,” Elway said.

He picked it up. Manning’s voice came through the line.

“He says, ‘It has kind of been a rough morning because I’ve had to call these other teams and say I’m not going to go work for them,'” Elway recalled.

“And he said, ‘I want to play for the Denver Broncos.'”

It didn’t take long for Manning’s impact to alter the team. After a 2-3 start, Manning got into a groove, and the offense sprinted through the rest of the schedule. Building off the momentum from a comeback from a 24-0 halftime deficit at San Diego, the Broncos won 11 consecutive games before a heartbreaking 38-35, double-overtime loss to Baltimore in the divisional round.

The end was awful for the Broncos. But the Manning Era had only begun.

Jack Del Rio becomes the seventh defensive coordinator in seven seasons.

2012 schedule

Date Opponent Score
9/9 pittsburgh steelers 31-19
9/17 atlanta falcons 21-27
9/23 houston texans 25-31
9/30 oakland raiders 37-6
10/7 new england patriots 21-31
10/15 san diego chargers 35-24
10/28 new orleans saints 34-14
11/4 cincinnati bengals 31-23
11/11 carolina panthers 36-14
11/18 san diego chargers 30-23
11/25 kansas city chiefs 17-9
12/2 tampa bay buccaneers 31-23
12/6 oakland raiders 26-13
12/16 baltimore ravens 34-17
12/23 cleveland browns 34-12
12/30 kansas city chiefs 38-3
1/12 baltimore ravens(afc divisional game) 35-38

2012 offense

Pos Player Starts
qb peyton manning 16
rb willis mcgahee 9
rb knowshon moreno 6
wr eric decker 15
wr brandon stokley 9
wr demaryius thomas 16
te joel dreessen 15
te virgil green 2
te jacob tamme 8
c dan koppen 12
c j.d. walton 4
t ryan clady 16
t orlando franklin 16
g zane beadles 16
g chris kuper 5
g manny ramirez 11

John Fox hits his 100th overall career win.

2012 defense

Pos Player Starts
de elvis dumervil 16
de derek wolfe 16
dt justin bannan 15
dt mitch unrein 2
dt kevin vickerson 14
slb von miller 16
mlb keith brooking 14
mlb joe mays 4
wlb d.j. williams 1
wlb wesley woodyard 14
cb champ bailey 16
cb chris harris jr. 12
cb tracy porter 4
s mike adams 16
s jim leonhard 1
s rahim moore 15

Record: 13-3
First place, AFC west