He no longer can make the throws that once defined his legacy as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, and he’s not close to the masterful conductor who has captivated a generation of football fans. At age 39 and possibly playing his final season, Peyton Manning is not what he once was, and Father Time soon will keep his unbeaten streak alive against the quarterback.
It looked as if he might never play again because of a foot injury in November, but Manning has been just good enough to put together one more — and most likely one last — storybook finish to cap a spectacular career.
In what figures to be his final matchup against Tom Brady, a 17-part duel that has been one of the greatest and longest rivalries in pro sports history, Manning did just enough to make it back to the Super Bowl for a fourth time. So if this really is it — and the visual evidence seems overwhelming that it will be time for Manning to walk away regardless of what happens in Super Bowl 50 — then what a brilliant way to go out.
Manning got the better of Brady yesterday in the Broncos’ 20-18 win over the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. And while Manning hardly was dominant, throwing for only 176 yards, he was plenty efficient with two touchdown passes and, just as importantly, no interceptions.
His counterpart was under siege for nearly the entire game as the Broncos smothered Brady with a relentless pass rush, forced him into two interceptions, sacked him four times and hit him on about two dozen other instances.
“There’s no question this is a sweet day,” Manning said. “This is a sweet victory. To me, this victory is a great example of what this entire season has been like. It hasn’t been easy.”
Particularly for Manning, who couldn’t play through a torn plantar fascia and had to give way to backup Brock Osweiler.
Osweiler looked good enough to take his team the rest of the way, winning four of six starts in place of Manning. But with the Broncos struggling in their regular-season finale against San Diego and needing a win to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, coach Gary Kubiak put his trusted veteran back in for what would be a dramatic 27-20 win, ensuring that the road to the Super Bowl would travel through Denver.
That Manning-Brady would be at Mile High proved to be a huge — and potentially game-deciding — difference. Brady had struggled here throughout his career, losing six of his previous eight starts, and was barely functional against a defense that was reminiscent of the Giants in their two Super Bowl wins over the Patriots.
“I have great respect for Tom as a player, a friend and the job he’s done as the quarterback of that franchise,” Manning said.
Manning played the reliable game manager role Kubiak envisioned for him and responded with some of his best work since last season in the first part of the game, helping the Broncos build a 14-6 lead with two touchdown throws to veteran tight end Owen Daniels. The Broncos had to hold on for dear life at the end, as Brady drove the Patriots for a touchdown that got them to within a two-point conversion of sending the game to overtime. But former Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib swatted away a pass for Julian Edelman that led to an interception by Bradley Roby, preserving the win.
Manning now has one more shot to win a second Super Bowl and do what Broncos vice president of football operations John Elway did at the end of his career — walk off into his NFL sunset as a champion.
“Having been there and been through it, I can understand what he is going through,” Elway said in the Broncos’ locker room. “We have seen that resilience his whole career. You look at what he has done and what he has come back from, the resilience has made him a great competitor and he keeps coming back.”
Manning just isn’t ready to think about the “what if.”
“Just kind of staying in the moment, taking it one week at a time, not assuming this is how it’s going to be, this is the final decision here one way or the other,” he said. “Just try to take it one week at a time, stay patient, and it’s served me well.”
Legendary Saints quarterback Archie Manning, who has had a front-row seat for his son’s entire career, can’t help but think about how sweet this might wind up.
“Olivia and I kind of had a moment this morning,” Archie said of a conversation he had with his wife. “We just talked about what happens, it’s been a good rodeo. It’s been 18 good years. I don’t know what’s going to happen, he hasn’t even brought it up. But you just savor every moment. This is special.”
It is beyond special. It can be perfect, especially if Manning can end this remarkable run with a second Vince Lombardi Trophy and a storybook finish.
Peyton Manning is now a .500 QB in the postseason. His career numbers:
QB Rating 88.1