DENVER -- As Peyton Manning sat at his locker, it was hard to tell if the AFC Championship Game was over or about to begin. Manning has been so many things in his career: great, brilliant, hyperactive, anal-retentive, intense, a workaholic. He has rarely seemed at ease. But this was a different day, and a different Peyton.
"There was something about him today, something great," Broncos running back Montee Ball said. "I think it was how calm he was. He was just talking to us. He just went about his business. Just his mannerisms, everything he did, he was just calm out there."
Manning did more than just beat Tom Brady and the Patriots 26-16 to lead Denver to the Super Bowl. He stole Brady's adjectives. On this day, Manning was cool, efficient and patient. He made it look easy.
There were two reasons for that: A three-year reason, and a three-hour reason.
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The three-year reason: When Manning sat out the 2011 season because of a neck injury, he had plenty of time to contemplate life without football. Manning -- the No. 1 high school recruit in the nation, the Heisman favorite as a Tennessee senior and No. 1 overall pick in 1998 -- was suddenly an underdog. He doesn't have the arm strength now that he once did, but this may actually help him, because he doesn't force as many throws as he once did. He is more willing to ride his team.
One of Manning's best plays against the Patriots came on a 3rd-and-10, when he audibled into a run play, to ensure Denver would get a few yards and a field goal try. Knowshon Moreno ran for a first down, but that wasn't even the point. Manning was willing to hand the possession to his running back so his place kicker could try a field goal.
The three-hour reason is that the Broncos simply have a better roster than the Patriots. Manning (32-for-43, 400 yards, 2 TDs) had better numbers than Brady (24-38, 277, 1) but that was mostly because he had an easier job.
Consider: The biggest play of the game for the Patriots was on 4th-and-3 at the Denver 29. New England needed Brady to make a play, but he had no chance. Denver's Terrance Knighton beat Patriots guard Logan Mankins and sacked Brady.
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And how many times did the Pats sack Manning? Zero.
And how many times did the Pats even hurry Manning? Zero.
Manning did bobble one snap, and then bobbled it again, but he still completed a pass on the play, and later he joked about it, like it was some sort of comedy act.
Brady was not his sharpest Sunday, but all season he has been trying to win poker hands with four cards. Manning had bigger and better receivers, more talented running backs and a sturdier offensive line. Manning was throwing to 6-foot-5 Julius Thomas, 6-3 Demaryius Thomas and 6-3 Eric Decker, while Brady appeared to be throwing to some local fourth graders. Bill Belichick has done a marvelous job of bringing in receivers off the street, but sadly, Demaryius Thomas does not live on his street.
The long-running Manning-Brady narrative was flipped upside down. Manning was the steady leader of the better team. Brady was the one who had to do everything, and who might take unfair blame if he didn't.
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There were some visibly nervous Mannings at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, but none of them was named Peyton. His older brother, Cooper, described himself as "standard nervous." And dad Archie ... well, even when your son is 37 and one of the most famous people in the country, he is still your son.
"My dad is the most nervous person in the whole stadium, no question," Cooper said afterward. "Before the game I can ask my dad: 'Dad, can I borrow a dime?' He would punch me in the face. Now I could probably hit him up for a Mercedes and he'd buy me two."
Cooper had texted Peyton Saturday to remind him to have fun. Cooper joked that "He doesn't always respond -- it's kind of a tradition" and anyway, Peyton Manning has never looked at football as fun, at least not in the conventional, let's-play-catch-and-then-eat-some-popsicles sort of way. That is why so many of his TV commercials work. He mocks his ultra-serious persona (though, at this point, the commercial persona probably is his persona).
"He would never admit that 'I'm gonna have fun tomorrow,''' Cooper said. "That is too laissez-faire for him. He looked pretty happy. All day, he looked like he was in control. It was fun to see. He is going to relish it and save every moment of this."
Two years ago, even Manning didn't know how well he would play. Now? He is heading to his third Super Bowl with an offense full of toys like the Thomas twins, who are not actually twins, though Manning could probably convince them they are.
This may be the best team Manning has ever played on, and Cooper said, "When you know you don't have a ton of them left, you soak it up." But next year's Broncos could be even better. Denver's best offensive lineman (Ryan Clady) and best defensive player (Von Miller) are injured, but young enough that we can expect them to come back strong next season. Brady won three Super Bowls before Manning won any, but the epic battle is not over.
The last time Manning beat Brady in an AFC title game, in 2007, he needed an amazing comeback to do it. It was always like that for the first half of their rivalry: Manning was fighting a battle on a dozen fronts -- mostly against Belichick, one of the best defensive coaches of all time.
This is different. For all the blather about Manning's legacy and Brady's legacy, they are both all-time great quarterbacks, and neither one needed this game to prove it. Manning just has the better team and the perfect mindset to run it.
For all those years, with all those audibles and hand signals, Peyton Manning made football seem so complicated. Now it looks like the easiest thing in the world.