Broncos poised to be remembered more for loss than record season

Following the loss to the Seahawks, Peyton Manning now owns an 11-12 career playoff record.
John Biever/SI

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The thing dripped with money, with pageantry. It was suits and strobe lights, beers that cost as much as a decent meal in downtown Denver. It was choreographed down to the final flourish.

It was an ending, and for the Broncos, the worst kind.

"I describe it as the most expensive funeral you'll ever go to," Robin Fox, the Broncos' coach's wife, told me Thursday. This was before the funeral, of course, before her husband's team lost to the Seahawks 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII, but she remembered. The championship game 10 years before, when John Fox's Panthers lost a close one, 32-29, to the Patriots, still stung.

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As she remembered, though, she smiled. She was loose, oblivious to what lay four days ahead. Her husband was two months removed from heart surgery, healthy and leading his team to a Super Bowl. Why not be loose?

And this wasn't just any team, either. It wasn't just great. It was the best offense of all time, led by a man nipping at the title of best quarterback of all time. As Robin looked out over the Hudson River that morning, she didn't seem worried. Why should she have? That team, the one that had gone 13-3 in the regular season, the one that watched Peyton Manning throw for an NFL-record 55 touchdowns -- it had nothing to worry about.

That team didn't show up on Sunday.

That team stayed back in Denver, or on the Cornucopia Majesty, the rocking, schmaltzy cruise ship that hosted the team's media sessions all week. That team is still celebrating after a dominant AFC championship, perhaps, or maybe it'll be waiting when camp opens in July.

That team is not this team, the one that scored once -- you read that right, once -- and turned the ball over four times against Seattle. They'll be remembered for this, these Broncos, for those errant interceptions and the blown coverages, for the safety they gave up just 12 seconds after kickoff, but that isn't them.

Let's begin with the safety, shall we? Manning was walking up to the line of scrimmage, he says, to try to get the plan straight. The plan for the play, he means, but it might as well have been the plan for the game, the way the whole thing went up in flames. The stadium boomed, and the lights beamed, and the Broncos offensive line couldn't hear its quarterback. Center Manny Ramirez snapped the ball, and it bounced back, and that was that.

When you can't hear Peyton Manning, you can't win a Super Bowl.

This will fall on Manning, all of it. The 37-year-old quarterback has now lost his second Super Bowl, and legacy is the word of the evening. All of it -- the 55 touchdowns, the 5,477 yards -- they all seem for naught after a night like Sunday. Now, Manning is relegated to conversations with the mere mortals. Tom Brady is a peer, not some aging pretty boy left in the dust. John Elway is still superior, at least in the number of Super Bowls, and in this black-and-white nightmare football has created for Manning, that's all that matters.

"Right now, I feel bad for him," Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. He knew Manning was going through something more than he, something bigger and more permanent. Knighton does not have to worry about buckling under the pressure of bests and legacies. "This is a team loss, not Peyton Manning's loss," he continued, knowing all the while that no one would listen.

He had to say it, though. Something is better than silence, better than the utter absence of noise in the Broncos locker room just moments before. It was the deadest of silences, the only sound being the click, click, clack of a team lackey adjusting a pair of crutches, presumably for the team to limp home on. Manning, just two weeks after his locker room in Denver had turned into a veritable family reunion, was alone. His father and brother Cooper had waited outside, but there was no place for them, no crowd to entertain outside Manning's locker. He couldn't have zipped his suitcase and escaped fast enough.

He was escaping, of course, from the questions, from the cameras and notepads poised to parse his performance and weigh the import of his 11-12 career playoff record. He was escaping to stutter and to downplay, to accept the blame that Knighton deflected for him, to answer questions he couldn't have ever anticipated. Peyton Manning does not anticipate this, and when these Broncos lose, it's never because of him.

Except on Sunday, of course. In perhaps the most important game of his career, Manning's Super Bowl-record 34 completions were as empty as his 280 passing yards. They were the ugliest yards he's ever tossed, the most meaningless completions, and his two interceptions were all that really mattered.

"You couldn't have painted a worse picture than this," cornerback Champ Bailey said, referring as much to his defense's struggles as he was Manning's. Bailey's seen his fair share of pictures, too, and each of his six career playoff berths has ended in a loss.

Like Manning, Bailey knows how to handle these moments, but that doesn't make them any easier. Asked what he looks forward to after this letdown, the cornerback's answer was simple: he wanted to go home, he said, to get away from it all. The Seahawks, meanwhile, were talking beach vacations. Russell Okung, all 310 pounds of him, mentioned a Speedo. They were loose. They were funny. They were babbling about the chips on their shoulders, about being overlooked.

They were themselves, the same Seahawks who trash-talked their opponents all week from a hotel ballroom in Jersey City. The Broncos were anything but. They were a mystery to the crowd and to themselves, and as Seattle fans milled through the concourses an hour after the game, there was no orange in sight. There were soda cups and ketchup packets smashed against stairwells, the scent of beer clinging faintly to it all, and Seattle could have beaten anyone, for all of Denver that lingered.

The most expensive funeral in sports was over, and Peyton Manning was heading home, and maybe next year we'll talk again about legacy, or maybe it's crumpled there on the concrete alongside the ketchup.

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