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(Reuters) - Peyton Manning returns to work next week looking to reassert his credentials as the gold medal standard for National Football League (NFL) quarterbacks after pacing the sidelines last season recovering from a fourth neck surgery.
But the NFL landscape can change quickly and Manning may not even be the best quarterback in his family anymore with younger brother Eli making a case for that status after leading the New York Giants to a second Super Bowl title in four years.
While Eli's stock has skyrocketed heading into the 2012 NFL season starting on Wednesday, Peyton has been downgraded from blue chip to speculative commodity after sitting out last season recovering from neck fusion surgery.
Certainly, the Indianapolis Colts considered Peyton a risky investment when they released the four-time NFL Most Valuable Player (MVP) in March after 14 years of distinguished service and a Super Bowl title rather than pay his $28 million bonus.
Others, however, were willing to roll the dice.
The Denver Broncos were among a handful of teams courting Manning before ultimately winning him over with a five-year $96 million contract, taking a gamble that the 36-year-old, 11-time Pro Bowl quarterback can lead them to a Super Bowl.
"I don't consider it much of a risk," Broncos vice-president of football operations John Elway told reporters after signing Manning. "Obviously, the expectation level's going to go up but that's where we want it be, too."
Talk about who was the NFL's top quarterback used to begin with Manning but now he is barely part of the discussion with MVP Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay Packers), Tom Brady (New England Patriots), Drew Brees (New Orleans Saints) and Eli Manning hogging the conversation.
The season could begin with a quarterback controversy with fourth-year New York Jets starter Mark Sanchez, already under fire for the team's preseason woes, and popular backup Tim Tebow firmly in the media crosshairs.
Cast out of the Mile High City after Denver landed Manning, the charismatic Tebow, who last year became a worldwide sporting phenomenon for his late-game heroics and displays of faith, has arrived on Broadway, putting pressure on Sanchez to perform or risk losing his starting job.
With as many as nine rookie or sophomore quarterbacks ready to start for their respective teams the new campaign will open to plenty of second-guessing and intrigue.
Adding to the intrigue will be the use of replacement referees for at least the first week of the regular season given a contractual dispute between the NFL and its officials. Their work over the preseason has already drawn complaints.
Andrew Luck, the top pick in this year's draft, is the cornerstone of the rebuilding project for the Colts while the Washington Redskins put their fate in the hands of Robert Griffin III, a Heisman Trophy winner as the top U.S. college player who was taken with the second pick.
Luck and Griffin have received most of attention but Ryan Tannehill, the eighth overall pick, will get a chance to enter the mix after being named the starter for the Miami Dolphins.
Cam Newton (Carolina Panthers), who had one of the best rookie seasons for a quarterback, Christian Ponder (Minnesota Vikings) and Andy Dalton (Cincinnati Bengals) will be among the second-year starters under scrutiny along with former number one picks Matthew Stafford (Detroit Lions) and Sam Bradford (St. Louis Rams).
One quarterback there are no questions about is Brady, who threw for over 5,000 yards last season while getting his team to the Super Bowl for the fifth time in 11 seasons.
The Patriots have been installed by oddsmakers as Super Bowl favorites and look the class of an AFC East that includes the Jets, Dolphins and Buffalo Bills, who have high expectations after landing two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Mario Williams.
The AFC North is shaping up as another bruising battle between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers while the AFC West looks wide open with the Broncos, San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs all in the mix.
Last season the Houston Texans reached the playoffs for the first time and, with quarterback Matt Schaub back from injury, look set to reign over a weak AFC South that features the Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans.
Over in the NFC, the Packers, Saints and San Francisco 49ers all look poised to repeat as division champions.
Green Bay, led by a top ranked offense, stormed through last year's regular season with a 15-1 mark but will need to see an improvement in a defense that ranked last in yards surrendered if they are to fend off challenges in the NFC North from the improving Lions and Chicago Bears.
After tense contract negotiations, the Saints will rely on Brees to see the team through its darkest time since being forced out of town by Hurricane Katrina.
Brees, who smashed the single season passing record tossing for 5,476 yards in 2011, may need to do that and more if the Saints are to again top the NFC South after the NFL uncovered a bounty system that paid players for injuring opponents.
The scandal resulted in punishing penalties, including the suspension of head coach Sean Payton for the entire season.
The 49ers, last season's surprise package going 13-3 to reach the conference final, should easily be the best of the NFC West with the Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams all scrambling to keep pace.
In contrast, the NFC East should be a dogfight with the Giants, Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles and Redskins battling for the division crown.
Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Frank Pingue