Peyton Manning, Broncos erase ghosts of past in win over Chargers

Peyton Manning led the Broncos over the Chargers, capturing his first playoff win since the 2009 AFC title game.
Jed Jacobsohn/SI

DENVER -- Marshall Manning doesn't know.

Marshall Manning makes his entrance, just a few minutes into his father's postgame press conference, with a bang. The door slams. "Daddy, Daddy," the 2-year-old squawks. Archie Manning shushes him, and Marshall watches, wide-eyed, as Daddy talks, and dozens of reporters take down his every word.

Marshall knows Daddy is important, but he's too young to realize just how so. He's too young to know how crazy it is that it took a year and a half of his life to see his daddy play a postseason game, and that when his daddy finally did, he lost. He's too young to see that reputations stick, that a 9-11 playoff record going into Sunday and an interception exactly one year ago have rendered his daddy something approaching a postseason bust.

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Maybe Marshall knows his daddy won on Sunday. Maybe, but there's no way he realizes that with their 24-17 victory over the Chargers, Peyton Manning and his Broncos finally kicked the ghosts of last Jan. 12 out of their locker room.

Before Sunday, Manning's last playoff win had come all the way back in 2009's AFC Championship Game. Since then, he's seen a Super Bowl loss at the hands of Drew Brees and the Saints, multiple neck surgeries, a release from the only team he'd ever known and last year's meltdown against the Ravens. He's heard he's too intense, that he overthinks, that the focus that's the hallmark of his greatness simply isn't suited for postseason ball.

And then he shot it all to hell, at least until next week.

After Sunday's game, in which Manning went 25-of-36 for 230 yards and two touchdowns, the quarterback was the closest thing to relaxed as he's been in months. He allowed himself a sideways glance and even a smile at his father and son when they entered the room. He cracked a joke when asked about his legacy -- "What's weighing on my mind is how soon I can get a Bud Light in my mouth," he quipped -- and he left the podium with a grin.

He was a natural.

In a game Manning described as "big-time football," he didn't have to be the 400-yard, five-touchdown man he was at moments this season for the Broncos. Instead, he and his team reacted to the flaws that were their downfall a month before, when the Chargers beat them 27-20 in Denver. They ran effectively, for 133 yards after posting just 18 in the loss. They dominated the time of possession, too, holding the ball for more than 35 minutes, and they ate up nearly four minutes of clock to end the game without handing the ball back to San Diego.

"I did not want to give [Philip Rivers] the ball back there at the end," Manning said. "There was some real want-to on the offense's part to stay on the field during that last series."

Maybe that's it, the want-to. Maybe the Broncos just wanted it more this year after learning how acutely painful it is to see a dream die early. It certainly seemed that way in moments. Despite how close the Chargers crept in their 17-point fourth quarter, there were moments when it seemed the Broncos were toying with their opponents. Former Charger Shaun Phillips logged two thunderous sacks on Rivers, with Jeremy Mincey and Malik Jackson adding two more. The quarterback was rattled, and his defense wasn't much more poised, committing five neutral-zone infractions on the afternoon.

"Peyton did a great job with the cadence, getting them offsides," Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas said. "I think it's Peyton. He's got people thinking that they think they know what he's doing, but they really don't."

It must be frustrating to contend with something so annoyingly efficient, and the Chargers showed it early, when things got ugly, and fast. In the first quarter, San Diego took two careless timeouts when the Broncos and their crowd completely rattled the team's focus, and at one point, Rivers threw a full-fledged temper tantrum. The Broncos ate it up.

"He complains the whole game," defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said of Rivers. "He throws a temper tantrum the whole game. I'm not worried about that."

Comparatively, Manning was cool, calm and collected. There were a few instances of his patented face of frustration, and his offense was certainly far from perfect, with several of his wide receivers dropping passes that flew through their hands. In the moments that counted, though, Manning was Manning, and when the first 56 minutes of football seemed for naught, he capitalized in the four that counted. That's what he couldn't do last year, what his team failed to do. Instead of buckling under pressure or being upended by the gusty wind, the Broncos did what any 13-3 team should be able to do and held their ground at home.

"It's about doing your job and doing it under pressure," Broncos coach John Fox said. "I think we've gotten better at that. We're going to have to get a lot better, even, moving forward."

As Marshall and Archie entered the press conference room Sunday evening, Marshall's daddy was thanking his teammates and praising his opponents. He meant every word: Rivers turned it on in the second half, when his team logged all but one of its 194 passing yards. He certainly deserved credit. Julius Thomas and the Broncos offense locked in on that last drive, converting on three third downs, including one on 3rd-and-17. And most of all, Denver's defense didn't buckle after losing its steadiest cornerback, Chris Harris, keeping Manning and the offense in the game with an effort no one would have predicted a month ago.

That's the only way this is going to work, after all, the only way Manning can inch closer to that second Super Bowl win. His thank yous have to be genuine. His teammates, especially on defense, have to step up. Manning might be a spectacle, but he can't be a one-man show.

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