ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) – Peyton Manning‘s pocket of protection is about to get an upgrade.
A finally healthy Chris Kuper is expected to return at right guard Saturday when the top-seeded Denver Broncos (13-3) host the Baltimore Ravens (11-6) in an AFC divisional playoff.
“It would be great,” coach John Fox said after Tuesday’s practice, the exact four words Peyton Manning would use 10 minutes later. “He was voted on as a team captain by his teammates. He’s a guy who’s been in and out of the lineup all year. He’s worked very hard to get back. It was good to see him out there today, and he had a fine day.”
Left tackle Ryan Clady also returned to practice, after missing all of last week’s workouts with an undisclosed injury. Although he’s dealt with a troublesome hamstring of late, Clady has never missed a game in his five-year NFL career.
Kuper, on the other hand, spent more time on the sideline than on the football field this season, and his absence was sorely felt, particularly – and, quite literally – by Manning.
Coming off four neck surgeries, Manning was sacked 21 times this season – but only twice with Kuper in the lineup.
Although Manny Ramirez admirably filled in, the O-line wasn’t the same without Kuper.
The anchor of Denver’s offensive line and a seventh-year pro out of North Dakota, Kuper made just five starts at right guard this season and played a half dozen snaps on special teams in two other games, including the season finale against Kansas City.
He missed the first four games after breaking his left forearm in training camp Aug. 14 and he missed five other games with a sprained left ankle, the same one he dislocated and broke in a gruesome scene a year ago.
For overcoming all these tribulations, his teammates Tuesday voted him their 2012 Ed Block Courage Award winner.
“Obviously, you don’t want to be in that situation because that means you had to fight through some injuries or adversity, but to be recognized as a guy who will do that, I think that’s just part of being a professional,” Kuper said.
Manning lauded Kuper for his perseverance.
“What Kupe’s been through from an injury standpoint, certainly physically, it’s taken its toll,” Manning said. “That’s a real challenge mentally, and I can just tell you that from my experience last year. He’s had a positive attitude; he’s worked hard; he and I have spent a lot of time in the training room together, so to see him back out there … it’s kind of like seeing Willis: it’s a great lift to the team and it’d be great to have him in there on Saturday.”
Running back Willis McGahee returned to practice Tuesday for the first time since tearing a ligament in his right knee in mid-November and missing the last six games of the regular season. He’s eligible to return to the active roster if the Broncos reach the AFC championship.
Kuper is gearing up for his first playoff game. He missed the Broncos’ run last season after getting hurt in the season finale.
“I remember watching that game on TV last year and what he’s done to come back from it is pretty spectacular,” wide receiver Brandon Stokley said. “So, it’s well-deserved.”
And all the adversity this year, “he’s fought through it,” Stokley said. “He’s a team guy and he’s one of those guys that when he’s on the field everybody looks to and kind of rallies around.”
Kuper was named a second alternate to the Pro Bowl after playing in just seven games this season, a measure of how much he’s respected across the league.
“To get him back at a much-needed time is a blessing,” Broncos pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil said. “Glad he’s able to go out and showcase what he can do.”
Kuper said the bye week did wonders for him, allowing him to knock off some rust.
“It helped me tons,” he said. “It’s been a trying year for me, so getting that extra week to kind of work back into the offense, it helped me a lot. It felt good. I’m doing my best out there to get ready to go.”
Now, he’s about to get his first taste of the playoffs.
“This is what I’ve been playing for since I got here,” Kuper said.
Notes: McGahee didn’t make himself available for comment Tuesday but RB Lance Ball said, “I don’t know when he’ll be back or if he’ll be back or not, but it was just good to go out there and see him out there practicing.”
By ARNIE STAPLETON, AP Pro Football Writer
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