Cooper Manning and youngest brother Eli, the New York Giants quarterback, stood as Peyton sat and removed his cleats. They were smiling, and before long, cameras began clicking to capture the moment.
“You definitely have to take time to savor the moment,” Peyton Manning said a few minutes later. “I know I will.”
Manning had led the Denver Broncos to the AFC championship, a 26-16 win against the New England Patriots and rival quarterback Tom Brady, but more than that, Sunday’s win was the final turn of a stunning comeback. Manning, 37, is returning to the Super Bowl to face the Seattle Seahawks, and below the back of the gray AFC championship hat, a scar was visible on his neck — a reminder of the injury that nearly ended his career.
“I had some doubts,” Eli said. “I had some worries for sure.”
Two years ago, Manning missed the 2011 season with a herniated disk in his neck, and surgeries seemed only to complicate matters. His dazzling right arm couldn’t support his own weight; throwing a football was impossible. The Indianapolis Colts, the team that drafted Manning first overall in 1998, cut him partly out of fear that a certain Hall of Famer would never be the same.
On Sunday, Manning eventually stood at eye level with his brothers and Broncos legend John Lynch. Peyton and Eli were discussing some of the plays the middle brother had produced — the ones the rest of the family watched from a box at Sports Authority Field.
Golfers remember birdie putts, how the greens broke and the ball’s reaction, and aging couples remember details of their first date. The Mannings see football plays in the theater of their minds, and before long in the locker room, Peyton was describing what he saw on a 30-yard post play to wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. On a different play, Eli described a blitzing safety and his brother’s reaction to the pressure. Peyton Manning wasn’t sacked and was barely hurried by the Patriots’ seventh-ranked defense.
“We just couldn’t get a stop,” New England safety Devin McCourty said.
Manning, still in his football pants, gestured as he described one of his 32 completions in 43 attempts, the things he saw as he passed for 400 yards and two touchdowns. The Patriots were, for a while, taking away the Broncos’ deep options, so Manning took advantage of openings near the sideline. Again and again, he found receivers alone in the flat, and he used the opportunity for quick reads and easy first downs.
“On any given play, one of five guys could get the ball,” said Manning, who completed passes to eight receivers.
Manning is an opportunist, but he’s also a student. He makes adjustments. His marathon film sessions are famous, and already as the sun set on Denver on Sunday, he told reporters that he would prefer to begin studying the Seahawks this week to maintain his routine. There would be no week off before Super Bowl prep began in advance of the Feb. 2 game in East Rutherford, N.J.
Two years ago, Manning relied on his mind to somehow push him back into an NFL team’s starting lineup, back to the elite ranks, back maybe to the Super Bowl. He had traveled to Europe four times for nerve-rejuvenation treatments, and when he became a free agent, he traveled to a handful of NFL cities before joining executive vice president John Elway and Coach John Fox in Denver.
“I was truly taking things slowly,” Manning said, “kind of phase by phase.”
The Broncos were gambling that Manning had something left, even if they had no idea what that would be. The team needed a quarterback and craved a Super Bowl — it hasn’t played for a championship since Elway won two in a row as the team’s quarterback in the late 1990s — and Manning wanted redemption.
“Anything he puts his mind to,” Eli Manning said Sunday afternoon, “he can usually accomplish it.”
He returned to football in 2012, passing for 4,659 yards and 37 touchdowns. Denver won 13 games, and as amazing as that was, old ghosts were still churning — still influencing the Manning story. He couldn’t win big in the playoffs. He couldn’t win games in the cold. He was the most talented quarterback of his generation — and maybe ever — Brady, the Patriots’ quarterback, was the three-time champion who seemed to have Manning’s number. Brady had won their first six meetings, and Manning didn’t beat Brady until 2005. The postseason had for years belonged to Brady, and again last year, it was the Patriots reaching the AFC title game and Manning’s Broncos losing their first playoff game.
Another year passed, Manning’s age creeping toward 40, and injuries seemed to linger. He wore a brace on his right ankle Sunday, a sign that midseason sprains had still not fully healed. The Broncos won their first six games, and Manning was somehow better than ever — he went on to break single-season records with 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns — but Brady still won their meeting in late November, a thrilling comeback that ended in overtime. It was Brady’s 10th win against Manning since he became New England’s starter in 2001, against four losses.
On Sunday, though, it was Brady who looked rattled amid the pressure. The Patriots’ normally cool quarterback sent passes high and wide, and most of his 277 passing yards came after Denver had built a double-digit lead. The Broncos’ defense sacked him once, but a larger sign that Brady wasn’t himself was perhaps revealed when, needing a two-point conversion to trim Denver’s lead to one score, Coach Bill Belichick called a run from the shotgun formation. The Broncos stopped Shane Vereen, and Manning went back to work, running off the remaining 3 minutes 7 seconds before the confetti fell.
“Everybody that retires,” Cooper Manning said, “wants one more shot. He’s glad to get it.”
When the game had been properly and thoroughly dissected, Eli was the first to look forward. One more big game lay ahead for his brother — most likely in chilly temperatures, no less. Before Eli disappeared down a back hallway, he shook his brother’s hand once more, and Peyton pulled him in for another hug.
“With Peyton,” Eli said a moment later, “not much amazes me any more.”