DENVER — He was zipper-necked and lax-armed compared with his youth, yet Peyton Manning was never better. A 37-year-old with metal in his vertebrae won a trip back to the Super Bowl, and as a mere byproduct he made fools of his doubters. If their point was that he was weak-minded — that was the implication wasn’t it, when they said Manning didn’t get enough done in big games? — he laid the question to rest with a performance that was all head and welded-together backbone.
For sheer quarterbacking command, for timing, recognition, disguise and tough-mindedness, how about 400 passing yards with a 74 percent completion rate and two touchdown drives that ate up more than seven minutes apiece. They prevented the supposed epic confrontation, Manning and the record-setting Denver Broncos against the more-decorated Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, from ever materializing. Instead Manning flatly sidelined his rivals with a mechanistic excellence that was life-sucking. The final score in their AFC championship game was 26-16, and it was deceptive because it didn’t indicate just how badly Manning bled them all game long.
It also didn’t begin to suggest the unprecedentedness of the comeback: After his fourth neck surgery two years ago, Manning’s arm was so weak from nerve damage that he coudn’t make a dart stick in a cork board. He didn’t know whether he would ever play again, much less stand in a storm of confetti holding a trophy. Asked whether he thought he would ever be in this position again, he said, “I can’t say that for sure. I was truly taking things slowly, phase by phase. Nobody could give me a timetable for recovery.”
It’s time to end the laughable argument about where Manning belongs among all-time greats, the charge that he is all statistics and not enough accomplishment, and simply say that he is utterly alone, unique. Name another aging quarterback with a crooked neck and a half-dead arm who is pugilist enough to set single-season NFL records for touchdowns and yards and reach a third career Super Bowl.
“You have to savor the moment,” he said. “It’s my 16th season and my third Super Bowl, and I know how hard it is to get there. . . . It’s hard to win, but I’m telling you, it’s hard to get there.”
Suddenly, all the talk about Manning’s deficits in the historical department, the comparisons of his one Super Bowl victory with Brady’s three, seem immaterial. Guess what? Manning now holds a 2-1 edge over Brady in head-to-head AFC title games, and he has an excellent crack at another Lombardi Trophy.
The pressure on Manning had mounted all week as his accomplishments — or lack thereof — were picked over by experts. “There was a lot of buildup, a lot of drama,” said his elder brother, Cooper. On the night before the game, Cooper texted Peyton to remind him to play the game for what it was, a game. Imagine he was 10 years old again, he advised him. “Have fun,” Cooper said. “There’s no sense in not.”
It was easier said than done. By kickoff, the steel and glass Sports Authority Field at Mile High was vibrating. Shaped like a giant peaking wave, you feared the stadium might break over the heads of the capacity crowd inside that swayed and roared, virtually every one of the 77,110 in day-glo bright team jerseys. They stamped their feet, shaking the struts of the stadium, with the rhythm of a locomotive over railroad ties.
Somehow, in all of that, Manning put on an exhibition of executive cool. He used his snap count to coax defenders into “tells,” giveaway twitches. He never overreached, never got greedy, never tried to show up Brady, never overtly tried to prove himself — or tried to prove any particular point for that matter.
It was a brutally physical game — linebackers goat-roped running backs, and receivers and defensive backs tried to get purchase by grabbing each other’s biceps, shoulders and throats — yet Manning seemed strangely separate from this action, tall and thin-hipped and immaculate-seeming under center, delivering the ball quickly and adroitly stepping out of the way.
His receivers would cut a swath across the field, and Manning would throw a timed rope, then stalk forward, get the offense arranged without huddling and deliver another clothesline pass. Then he would stride forward again without pausing, never altering the pace or length of his stride. In this way he put together a 15-play, 93-yard operation that ate up almost half of the second quarter, finishing it with a neat piece of play-action and a roll to the right for a one-yard strike to Jacob Tamme, standing all alone in the center of the end zone with 7 minutes 50 seconds left in the first half.
He opened the second half with another touchdown drive so inexorable it seemed automated. This time the Broncos used up 7:08 as they moved 80 yards, Manning finding Demaryius Thomas at the top of his jump with a three-yard scoring spiral. Again, the Broncos had eaten up almost half of a quarter.
“To keep Tom Brady on the sideline is a good thing,” Manning said.
With those two drives totaling more than 14 minutes, Manning literally shortened the game. It was huge, all the difference. It meant Brady only got to play three quarters while Manning played four. By the time Brady got on the field in the fourth quarter, there was just 12:02 to go, and the Patriots trailed 23-3.
“He had a great day. He didn’t miss a beat, and he hasn’t missed a beat,” Broncos Executive Vice President John Elway said as he came out of the field tunnel. “He just did it again. Now let’s get one more out of him and bring the Super Bowl trophy home. That would be the real cherry on top.”
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.