DENVER — Wobbling, knuckling and fluttering in the devilish winter crosswinds, Peyton Manning’s throws were as painful to observe as they were difficult to catch Sunday. At one point, a wise guy in the press box played a sound effect on his computer — “quack” — after another wounded duck. There was no rhythm or flow to the Broncos’ offense, just a chain of drops and misfires, just the agony of watching another legendary athlete struggling to put steam on a football in his career twilight.
The pizza commercials, the insurance ads featuring his daily life as a narrative … it all seemed very old, like Manning himself. Why wasn’t he listening to his arm, his neck, his foot, his aching body? Why was he punishing himself, punishing us?
Because he still had the fourth quarter, that’s why.
Through the rusty creaking sounds, through the growing boos in his home stadium, Manning knew this AFC divisional playoff game against the undermanned Pittsburgh Steelers was still winnable. No longer the commanding, unstoppable maestro of yore, his only mode at 39 is survivalism. The success formula now in Denver relies on a dominant defense, with Manning in the shadows as a seasoned game manager. And when their season was in jeopardy, in what potentially was Manning’s final NFL game, the defense produced a big turnover, allowing him to direct a 23-16 victory that puts him in a too-familiar showdown — No. 17 — against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, this time for the AFC championship and the right to play Carolina or Arizona in Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium.
Surely, Manning had a message in the huddle after safety Bradley Roby had forced a fumble by Pittsburgh’s ninth-string running back, moonlighting French painter Fitzgerald Toussaint, giving the Broncos life at their own 35-yard line with 9:52 left while trailing 13-12.
“No message,” he corrected. “One thing I’ve always believed in, if I have misthrows or we have some dropped passes, you keep firing.”
He somehow remained undaunted despite an ugly futility streak staring him down: No touchdowns in 22 straight playoff possessions dating back to last January’s loss to Indianapolis, when the Broncos were distracted by coaching drama that, among other developments, led Jack Del Rio to the Raiders. On Denver’s previous possession, Manning had made his most productive play of the day by literally falling down and getting back up again, which resembled one of his TV comedy routines. Blitzed by safety Will Allen, who had pummeled him earlier from the blindside, Manning seemed to fall forward almost on purpose, then climbed to his feet and scrambled a bit — in the NFL, remember, a play remains alive unless an offensive player is touched by a defender — before finding Emmanuel Sanders for 34 yards to the Pittsburgh 46. Was that a planned play? Or just an 18-year veteran in a disoriented state?
“Got to take a look at that,” said Manning, deadpanning. “I’d like to get in there early in the morning and then I can get it deleted off the game film. I don’t know, the video guys get there early. I think it was my longest pass play of the game. We’ll take it.”
It was his longest, by far, on a day when Pittsburgh lumberjack Ben Roethlisberger threw for 339 yards and no interceptions only a week after spraining the AC joint in his throwing shoulder. Of course, the miles of gaudy passing yardage — an NFL-record 71,940 — are long behind Manning. Now, it’s about making a big throw. Just as he got it done to Sanders, in a drive that went nowhere, he made the vital play the next time he had the ball. On 3rd-and-12, with 8½ minutes left, he finally released the pressure valve at Sports Authority Field with a 36-yard completion to Bennie Fowler, who had dropped two earlier balls. This was vintage Peyton — leading his receiver perfectly, putting zip on the ball — and it positioned the Broncos to let another Cal product factoring into this NFL postseason, C.J. Anderson, to pound in for a touchdown and give the Broncos their go-ahead points.
“We want to do it for No. 18,” said Fowler, “as much as he wants to do it for us.”
“That ball he threw to Bennie had some rope on it,” Anderson said. “He threw some [inaccurate] balls, we had some drops, but I thought he played great.”
Still, the takeaway was the Self-Sack. “Definitely a crazy play,” Sanders said. “I thought it was over with, and he just kept moving. Peyton, he looked like Big Ben out there the way he ran there and threw it on the run.”
Peyton? Ready to fess up? “I don’t really want to analyze that play too much. I’d like it to go away, if I could,” he said. “I was stepping up. When you fake that way and kind of get your head around, I felt [Allen] closing in, so I stepped up and kind of leaned forward. My momentum kind of just took me down, I guess. I told Emmanuel just to kind of be alert in case I fall down and get back up — to be uncovered.”
Ohhhhh, so it was premeditated.
See how this man still can win a football game, even if he no longer has regular velocity on his fastball. You’d like to compare him to Greg Maddux for his guile and gamesmanship, except next Sunday here in Colorado, he’s facing Brady, who is on a life mission and more emotional than ever. Why would that be? Oh, maybe it has something to do with coming home to the Bay Area and winning his fifth Super Bowl title, which not only would one-up Joe Montana in his ’hood but quiet the critics — myself included — who excoriated him for his conspiratorial role in Deflategate. Seeing how the Broncos struggled most of this game and how the Patriots handled a hot Kansas City team with relative ease, does anyone think Manning — or, more to the point, the Denver defense — will stop Brady and Bill Belichick? My gosh, the Broncos’ defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, still might be recovering after he was run over on the sideline by Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant.
For now, Manning simply is pleased to be in another AFC title game. He missed six full games and parts of two others this season with a foot problem, allowing us a long look at possible heir Brock Osweiler. Clearly, the kid has the better arm. Clearly, the kid looked damned good at times in winning six of eight starts. But it’s too late for a change now, not that you’d want Osweiler facing a Belichick defense in a title game even after he beat the Patriots in overtime in November. Flaws and all — and there are many, including a 12-13 postseason record, an 0-5 record when the temperature is under 40 degrees at opening kickoff and a 5-11 record against Brady — it’s Manning or bust.
“There’s nobody that has more respect for Peyton than me, outside of probably his parents and his brothers,” Brady said. “If anybody can appreciate what he’s accomplished, it’s me. He’s just been remarkable in every part of his career.”
And what does Manning think of Brady?
“We’ll deal with that on Wednesday,” he said. “We’ve still got a couple of hours to enjoy this one tonight.”
In his current heavy-rotation ad, Manning is playing ping- pong while singing the Nationwide insurance tune with new words: “Epic comeback starts right now.” Then, a kid rockets a shot past him.
That’s what next Sunday could feel like, too, sad to say.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.