The season will go down as one filled with injury, abject humiliation and questions about his age, but Peyton Manning will play in his fourth championship game in two weeks.
Because of painful plantar fasciitis, the rise of Brock Osweiler and questions about his ability to throw the ball, Manning managed to play in only 10 games during the regular season, but the Denver Broncos went 12-4, securing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. For much of that time, Manning was, inconceivably, an afterthought — until the season ended and suddenly the Broncos were his team again. Or at least as much his team as a squad that relies on a stifling defense and a strong running game could be.
Manning now goes to Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, Calif., in two weeks, becoming, at 39, the oldest man to start a Super Bowl. For a change, this team won’t be riding on his arm, not that it could. But at least Manning looked a little stronger in the Broncos’ 20-18 victory over the New England Patriots as he completed 17-of-32 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns. He did all he needed to do and seems poised, even content, to fill that role in Super Bowl 50.
Not that he was talking about any of that in the aftermath of the AFC championship game win. With confetti raining down, he took a moment to scan the scene, looking for his family and knowing how special — if different — this is. He kept using the word “unique” to describe the day, the season and the Super Bowl trip.
“There’s no question this is a sweet day. This is a sweet victory,” he told reporters. “To me, this victory sort of is a great example of what this entire season has been like. It hasn’t been easy. It’s been a lot of different people stepping up and doing their parts at different times, starters, non-starters becoming starters. Both our safeties got hurt today and we had some guys go in there and step up in there and help us get that win.
“It’s been a unique season. There’s no question about it and this game today was a unique football game. Everybody did their part and it truly was a team win.”
He’ll be reminded along the way that he has won only one Super Bowl and that his last appearance, against the Seattle Seahawks, began ignominiously with a snap that sailed past Manning’s head. The Broncos were humbled 43-8 in that game and John Elway, the architect of this Broncos team, rebuilt it. All he had to do was look at game film of the Seahawks in that Super Bowl and focus on defense and the running game — while he hoped Manning’s body could hold up.
Sunday night wasn’t the time for Manning to reflect on a season that began with the revelation of an ugly email in which Tom Brady questioned how much Manning had left, an email for which Brady personally apologized. He also took a pay cut, earning back half of the $4 million in incentives by qualifying for the Super Bowl. Along the way Manning was battered, benched and called on to help his replacement. His coach, though, was willing to pull back the curtain, a bit.
“I’m so proud of him,” Coach Gary Kubiak said. “I sit here and reflect on some of the meetings he and I had throughout the course of these last 10 weeks and some of the conversations we had and then to sit right there and the opportunity we have in two weeks. I’m just so proud of him. He worked hard to get back.”
Since early November, Manning has looked like a man who is not so much enjoying the season as enduring it. No doubt he burns to win as much as he ever did, but there’s a rising pain quotient and increasing physical limitations, coupled with an ugly accusation about HGH use last month. Why on earth does he need this?
But he clearly does and only 60 minutes remain in this season. Only 60 minutes separate the five-time NFL MVP from a second Super Bowl title. Does he think he can last another 60 minutes?
“I hope so” was all he would reveal. “It’s going to be a special two weeks. I look forward to it.”
In two weeks, the team will play for the NFL championship. The following month, Manning will turn 40 and there will be plenty of time for questions about whether he’ll be back in the NFL and back in Denver or whether he has wrung all he can out of this body.