In the end, the Denver defence clinched it for him. But make no mistake, as improbable as it might have seemed before the game, it was Peyton Manning who won the AFC Championship for the Broncos, 20-18, over the New England Patriots.
This was no small feat, at least compared to the expectations for Manning during this, the last winkling of twilight of a remarkable career. Manning was not expected to win this game—to manage it, sure, but not to win it. Not to duel his friend/mortal enemy Tom Brady pass for pass and come out on top. Not to throw two touchdowns and no picks to Brady’s one TD and two interceptions.
Yes, a final, desperate Patriots drive came within a failed two-point conversion of doing, well, of doing what has happened to Peyton Manning so many times in the NFL Playoffs. But this time, the defence held, if only barely. And it was Manning, not just the defence and certainly not the running game or special teams, that had led the Broncos to the cusp of victory.
The defence had mostly stymied the Patriots all afternoon, but they were battling injuries in the fourth quarter and looking shaky. All Manning could do was look on and hope for one stop. Instead he got penalties, and Brady found life, and Rob Gronkowski snatched a fourth-down touchdown with seconds to go and then the Patriots lined up for a two-pointer to tie the game and then…it somehow didn’t happen the way it has for Brady so many times before. It didn’t end in heartbreak as it often has for Manning, and now after what could be the penultimate victory of his career, a future Hall of Famer will get one last Super Bowl stand.
It would be easy to conjure up an image of Manning this past Friday, 48 hours before the game. He'd be gingerly shaking his arm after getting in a limited practice, perhaps, flexing his shoulder and stretching his neck a bit in the same way he's been doing after particularly tough throws since he returned from to the NFL four years ago, wearing a new uniform after rehabbing from four neck surgeries.
Seventy more throws or so, he might have thought to himself on Friday as he prepped for the Patriots and one last dance with Brady and possibly four quarters beyond that. Just two weeks and about 70 more passes, maybe only 20 of them deep ones. Another 400 yards or so on an odometer that ticked past 78,000 earlier this year. Then that's it. Then...no more throws. Maybe—probably?— ever.
Then, win or lose on those 70 passes—not that he would say it the moment after his victory Sunday—he'd likely be able to walk away from the NFL and right into the history books. Given the apt comparison of today's game to the gladiatorial arenas of old, that exit would be the closest thing in modern sports to being carried out on one's shield.
The 70 throws wouldn't need to be perfect, either. The real strengths of this Peyton Manning-helmed team, for perhaps the first time in the history of Manning-helmed teams, do not really include Peyton Manning.
Instead, it would seem be Brady's ability, or lack thereof, to overcome a ferocious Broncos pass rush, playmaking linebackers and gifted secondary that would determine whether or not Manning's own conservative tosses would be enough. At least, you wouldn't have been blamed for thinking as much going in given how Manning's season had gone.
Instead, when he hit Owen Daniels for a 21-yard touchdown to conclude the Broncos opening drive, it served notice that he'd come not to hand off the ball and hope, but to actually confront his longtime foil.
When Von Miller picked off Brady to give the Broncos great field position in the red zone as the second quarter began, well, that served notice that the Patriots offence was vulnerable to Denver's defensive pressure.
Then, when Manning had two receivers open for a touchdown on one play in the following possession, he overthrew the deeper one of them. Manning over-throwing anyone, especially the deep man, seemed like a clip from the History Channel. Owen Daniels, the shallow receiver on the play, was practically quaking with frustration that he didn't get the ball. Two plays later, though, Manning found Daniels again, on a perfect touch pass to bank the score anyway. It might not have been a 2006 Manning fastball into a tight window, but it was definitely reminiscent of 2013 Manning. That season ended with broken records littering the proverbial field--but also with a Super Bowl humiliation at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks.
Manning had been so superlative in that 2013 season though, and the Broncos offence so dynamic, that even at 37 it hadn't seemed like his last chance at it.
This game, though? This game positively reeked of Last Chance.
Peyton Manning had attempted 9,380 passes in the regular season, and 972 more in the playoffs, before Sunday.
He had attempted just 368 of them this season however, and an improbable number of them had ended up in the wrong hands. When Manning was finally relieved of starting quarterback duties midway through Week 9, he led the NFL with 17 interceptions. When he returned in Week 16, ostensibly healthy and replacing a futile Brock Osweiler, he still held that NFL lead in interceptions. Yeah, it had been a pretty rough nine games.
He was better upon his return, but in that divisional round victory over Pittsburgh, Manning hadn't seemed close to his old MVP self. Rather he seemed more aware of what his new self was capable of, and limited his attempts, deep balls and his more traditional Manning-like qualities accordingly.
The Broncos had the NFL's best defence, after all, and a quality running game. They could get by a battered Steelers team in the divisional round with Manning simply limiting his impact on the game.
But to take that approach against Brady and Bill Belichick? That may or may not have been folly, but it definitely would have—if you'll excuse the hyperbole—gone against the spirit of the greatest rivalry of a football generation.
For Brady and Belichick to beat the Broncos defence and special teams and running game and coaching staff to advance to the Super Bowl, while Manning handed off, dumped off, safety-valved and otherwise refrained from overly impacting the outcome?
It would have been a sadder way to go out than simply throwing and losing. Manning's lost to Brady before. Often, in fact. But he's never shirked the weight of his team's fate on his shoulders, as badly as that's mostly ended for him. So he didn't. He threw 32 passes, and completed 17 of them. He was the better quarterback. And he didn't stoop to manage the game until it actually needed managing. We should have known better than to think he'd shrink on a stage like this. On what might easily have been his last stage.