Peyton Manning has led the Broncos to the AFC Championship Game before—this will be their second visit in three years—but this time, they must learn how to be there in their new iteration.
DENVER—Peyton Manning doesn’t want to talk about it. He doesn’t want to, but he does, because this fall, the NFL’s oldest quarterback, once the NFL’s greatest quarterback, has learned he has no choice but to contend with certain things, with age, with mortality, with the messy moments that come before the end.
“I don’t really want to analyze this play too much,” he said, laughing, after Sunday’s 23–16 Broncos victory over Pittsburgh. “I’d kind of like it to go away.” He’s talking, of course, about the play at the beginning of the fourth quarter, down 13-12 on his own 20-yard line. The fall. Playing dead. Call it what you will. The 39-year-old Manning, untouched by a Pittsburgh defender, ended up on the turf, stood up – and completed a 34-yard pass to receiver Emmanuel Sanders. It was ugly. It worked.
“I felt that guy closing,” Manning explained, “and so I stepped up and kind of leaned forward, and momentum kind of took me down, I guess.”
Momentum. The momentum of football. The momentum of age. It’s carried Manning here, to the turf, to the podium, to his fifth AFC Championship berth. Here he is, smiling, joking, winning, managing.
Yes, managing. That’s a word we can say now, when it comes to Peyton Manning. It’s what he’s asked to do, on a team with the NFL’s best defense that runs Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking, under-center offense. “It’s positive to see Peyton [play like he did today],” cornerback Chris Harris said. “He managed the game right. No turnovers. That’s all we need.”
There’s something so natural about Manning and the Broncos and January. They’ve been here every season of his tenure in Denver, contending. The drawling quarterback wears his blue suit, patterned tie. He cracks bad jokes, and good ones too. But this year, it’s different. The locker room is quieter, the message subdued. This is less of a celebration than it is a grind, the next step in a season that’s been at times a slog.
But the slog marches on, a game between it and the Super Bowl, and against New England in the AFC Championship, Manning will need his team to step up like it did in the second half of Sunday’s game. The first half, which saw Pittsburgh go up 10–9 despite a banged-up quarterback and its no. 1 receiver on the bench, was a lowlight reel of Broncos receivers dropping passes. Manning wasn’t perfect, but he was hitting his spots as well as he has all season, without a single interception, and with little reward. Denver’s defense, missing Harris in its base package due to a shoulder injury that limited him throughout the game, was similarly off. Manning’s supporting cast, supposed to be the Broncos’ best hope at a playoff run, was looking like it might seal its quarterback’s fate.
And then Bradley Roby, playing Harris’s starters reps, forced a fumble, which DeMarcus Ware recovered, with just under 10 minutes remaining in the game. A holding penalty backed Denver up to third down and 12 on its own 33-yard line, which is when Manning hit second-year receiver Bennie Fowler for a 31-yard gain. For a moment, he more than managed. He can still do that, still has those moments of laser focus when his arm is 36 again. The throw was his second-longest completion of the night and by far his best pass. The Steelers' defensive backs had been playing Cover Three in the slot all night, Fowler said, and Manning knew the coverage before it was coming. “He’s the best,” Fowler said. “He’s been doing it for a long time.”
The Manning who finished Sunday’s game with 222 passing yards on a 56.8 completion percentage is certainly not his 2014 self, just a shadow of the quarterback who burned down the league in 2013, but he’s more than respectable. And the Broncos can still rely on his mind, perhaps the sharpest in the game. That counts for something. But the Patriots loom, and it seems more like an asteroid is about to hit Denver than another epic quarterback battle. One of the greats is no longer, and the other, Tom Brady, is carrying his resurgent team. There is only so much Manning can predict, only so far his genius can go. For all the familiarity of the game, the quarterback admitted Sunday night that so much of these past few months—months that included him getting benched for Brock Osweiler—have been an unfamiliar challenge. “It's been a unique season,” he said. “A lot of new things have happened this season.”
And for a player who for so long knew football inside and out, new has to be jarring. But Manning is back where he hoped he’d be, where he won’t admit he ever doubted he’d be, and it’s up to his team to keep him there. The team that was once built around one of the game’s best quarterbacks is now built to prop him up, to complement him, and Denver has to hope that’s enough.
The Broncos will need to be twice as sharp next weekend as they were on Sunday. They know as much. Maybe that’s why their locker room seemed so subdued on Sunday, happy but calm, focused. The team that’s been here before has to learn how to be here in its new iteration.
Instead of screaming, cheering. Instead of talking Super Bowl, talking tomorrow. As Anderson ran into the locker room after the game, he chanted four words:
“We get another week.”
After this season, that’s all these Broncos could have asked for.