DENVER — They didn’t lift the old man onto their shoulders, instead letting him descend into a confetti-covered gaggle of cameras as Bill Belichick hugged him and Tom Brady told him to go win Super Bowl 50. But Peyton Manning knew the bigger truth Sunday. Humbled and grateful for another chance to rewrite his famous final scene, he knew he’d been carried to this improbable celebration by DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller and a lost element in a league of scoring explosions, elite quarterbacks, protective rules and fantasy geekery.
A savage, swarming, Brady-battering defense.
And the reason the Denver Broncos will face Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, 13 evenings from now at Levi’s Stadium, is a bold offense-to-defense transformation orchestrated by the familiar fellow standing beside Manning on the victory stand. After a thrilling 20-18 win over the New England Patriots that wasn’t complete until the final seconds, when Brady’s two-point conversion pass following a last-gasp touchdown drive was fittingly tipped and intercepted by that defense, John Elway stepped to the microphone in the city he has made his kingdom.
He thanked the fans. He thanked Manning, the players. He thanked his head coach and throwback roommate in his playing days, Gary Kubiak, who was appointed last winter to change a culture that predecessor John Fox had allowed to wane in ugly playoff losses. “Gary and his staff really stepped into a hot seat, and they proved everybody right here in doing a tremendous job,” Elway said. He forgot to thank someone else.
As a Stanford legend, he has been known heretofore as a sports god who went on to become one of the NFL’s all-time quarterbacks. From this point on, they also should extol him on the Farm as the latest superstar innovator. Only two seasons ago, Manning produced the greatest regular season ever by a quarterback: a league-record 55 scoring passes for an offense that produced a league-record 606 points. But when the Broncos laid a stinker in the Super Bowl, Elway decided to reboot his master plan as the team’s football operations boss. He signed Ware in free agency. He continued to draft defensive players in the first round, a pattern that began with Miller in 2011. He dumped Fox, let defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio sign with the Raiders, brought in his BFF Kubiak and old hand Wade Phillips to run the defense … and was accused of cronyism. When Elway and Kubiak decided to downsize the role of 39-year-old Manning and turn him into a game manager, they were accused of blasphemy.
But in the final summary that was the AFC championship game, Elway was dead-on correct. The defense forklifted the old man to Santa Clara. Manning struggled in the season’s first two months with waning velocity and interceptions, then sat six games with a foot injury to accompany his other ailments (shoulder, neck, back). Would he ever play again? Turns out Elway and Kubiak had another plan for him. When he was ready to return, they would thank young Brock Osweiler for a nice job and point him back to the bench. They weren’t going to be cruel to Peyton Manning. As Elway promised four years ago, he’d try to get him a second Super Bowl ring.
Here is Manning, a step away. Just weeks after appearing ready to schedule his retirement press conference, one of America’s famed athletes — mostly admired, though some view him as an overexposed phony who did use human growth hormone — has his ticket stamped for Santa Clara. Afterward, he made sure to reiterate what has made that excursion possible: a monster defense, in the tradition of the ’85 Bears, ’02 Ravens and Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain.
“No question this is a sweet day, a sweet victory,” said Manning, who hit Owen Daniels with two pretty first-half TD passes and threw the ball with more command. “I’ve enjoyed playing on the same team as that defense. I’m glad I don’t have to face them, I’ll say that. It’s special to watch them work and perform on Sundays.
“It’s been a different sort of season. My role has been different. My contributions are different. You try to do your part and contribute, and when I couldn’t participate, I’d try to be patient and worked my way back into a position where I’d be available. I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to contribute in some way. It’s a great honor going back to the Super Bowl. It’s gonna be a fun two weeks.”
While he managed effectively and made no mistakes, Manning also was a spectator in a defensive clinic. Led by Ware and Miller, whose attacking scheme against a dynamic and mobile Newton will be the strategic story of SB50, the Broncos crushed Brady. They sacked him four times, knocked him down at least a dozen times and hurried him on virtually every throw. On the final drive, Ware usually had Brady in his grasp, forcing him to throw quickly and sometimes inaccurately. This was not a hallmark game for Brady, who threw three picks and missed on 29 of his 56 passes, or for coach Bill Belichick, who twice eschewed field-goal attempts he would have liked to have back in the final seconds. And the teams still might be playing if Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who’d made his previous 523 extra-point tries and all 52 this season, hadn’t missed in the first quarter. A dominant defense has a way of unnerving the best, meaning the Patriots won’t be repeating as champions and Brady won’t be returning to his native Bay Area to win his fifth Lombardi trophy and one-up boyhood idol Joe Montana.
“Someone asked a question this week: ‘If [Brady] gets the ball off in 1.9 seconds, what are you guys going to do if you can’t get any rush?’” Ware said. “I said, ‘Well, we’ve got to be a little faster and get there in 1.8.’ The game was going to be won in the trenches, and we said that we’d have to get pressure on him in all situations. We had to let him know that our presence is there. He felt that today.”
“He was rattled,” Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib said of Brady. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone put that much pressure on Tom.”
Said Brady: “There were a lot of plays I got hit pretty hard. It’s football. We went right to the end and came up one play short. I wish that two-point play would have been different, but I’m proud of the way we fought to the end.”
He wasn’t as disconsolate as Gostkowski. “I just feel terrible,” he said. “All day, these guys put their bodies and lives on the line, and for me to miss a kick, it’s a nightmare scenario. I can’t even explain how I feel. I let a lot of people down.”
There were many stars on this day, and many stories to tell the next two weeks. But Elway’s role seems to overwhelm everything in the Broncos sphere. He dared to alter a team’s identity when other general managers would have stood firm with a Hall of Fame QB as the centerpiece.
“There always is a transition period, you know? Because unfortunately, these great quarterbacks get older,” Elway said. “Really, what I was drawing off and have been drawing off, is my experience in my career as — the older I got that, OK, when we won those [two] Super Bowls — what was the formula? The formula was to play good defense, and offensively, it was about running the ball.”
Cal product C.J. Anderson, the new Bay Area homecoming story, is Denver’s best running back, proving it with a critical 30-yard gain on 3rd-and-1 that set up a field goal for a 20-12 lead. But the best run was a 12-yard scramble by Manning that shocked the world. Who knew he could run at all? He chafed when someone asked if it was the longest run of his career, but it was his first run of more than 10 yards since 2012 and the first time he has run for a first down on 3rd-and-10 or longer since 2002.
“He’s gonna do what he has to do to win,” Kubiak said. “He’s one of the greatest competitors in the history of this league. To take off and make that play shows it.”
Kubiak was the messenger all season, delivering news Manning didn’t want to hear. “I can reflect on some of the meetings and conversations we’ve had the last 10 weeks,” Kubiak said, “and now we have this opportunity in front of us in two weeks. This team just believes he’s going to get it done.”
Smiling amid the joy was the man who hired the coach, adjusted the paradigm, turned Manning into a supporting-cast member. “We have seen that resilience his whole career,” Elway said. “You look at what he has come back from, the neck [surgeries] four years ago.”
He paused. “I think the big thing is, we have to win it,” Elway said. “It’s going to be a tremendous add to Peyton’s legacy, but also to the Broncos legacy. We’ve given ourselves an opportunity. Hopefully, we have saved our best for last.”
Overcoming the Newton assault will be difficult. Carolina will be favored. For now, none of that matters.
Of consequence is that Peyton Manning isn’t dead yet. He’s in the damned Super Bowl again, back in the national bosom, his pizza and insurance commercials on full blast through Feb. 7.
If not longer.
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.