It's Peyton Manning Week at Sports Illustrated. Peter King joined The Record podcast to discuss his SI story on Manning's free agency tour in 2012, so all week we are sharing some of our favorite Manning stories from the Vault and writing some new ones too.
2006 AFC championship game (Patriots at Colts)
How sure was I that the Patriots were going to win the AFC title game? Put it this way, I was on the Patriots beat for the MetroWest Daily News and I spent halftime at the old RCA Dome on Expedia, lining up a flight to Miami for the Super Bowl. And I was pretty deep into my search—it actually started midway through the second quarter, when Asante Samuel picked off Peyton Manning and waltzed 39 yards into the end zone untouched. Why? Well, despite the fact that Manning had seemingly overcome the hex Bill Belichick had on him from 2001-04 (the Patriots went 6-0 against the Colts over that time, and beat them twice in the playoffs), with regular season wins in Foxboro in 2005 and ’06, the question still lingered over whether he could beat back the old demons when it mattered most. He had a 1:5 TD:INT ratio in the two earlier losses, and had started 7-for-14 for 61 yards and a pick in this one.
Even with a long field-goal drive to end the half, this one had all the markings of another Manning meltdown against the hoodie. And then, everything changed. That field-goal drive? It was just the start of a run of 18 unanswered points to tie the game at 21, and Manning went blow-for-blow with the Brady/Belichick boogeyman after that. After that rough start? He was 20-of-33 for 288 yards and a touchdown over the game’s final 34 minutes. Even the breaks—center Jeff Saturday scored a touchdown, recovering a Joseph Addai fumble in the end zone—started to go his, and the Colts’, way. And in crunch time, down 34-31, Manning was near perfect, going 3-for-4 for 57 yards to a lead a seven-play, 80-yard drive that left just a minute on the clock, and wound up giving the Colts a 38-34 win.
The whole thing, in the moment, felt even bigger than it was, a win to deliver a team its first Super Bowl appearance in 36 years. Really, it seemed like the win Manning might never get, over Brady and Belichick on the biggest stage they could possibly meet on, as intraconference rivals. From there, things between the two in the greatest quarterback rivalry ever were pretty even—Brady won five, Manning won three, while Manning took two of three from Brady in the playoffs. But there’s no question when everything changed, and it was pretty cool to be in the building that night for it. And luckily I didn't get stuck paying for that plane ticket.
2013 Opening Night (Ravens at Broncos)
The first game of Peyton Manning’s best statistical season began with a thunderstorm delay. There was already enough anticipation surrounding the 2013 season opener: The Ravens were fresh off a Super Bowl win, the road to which included the Mile High Miracle, when Joe Flacco’s 70-yard TD pass to Jacoby Jones broke the hearts of Manning and the Broncos. Now the Ravens were back in Denver—they didn’t host the opener because of a conflict with the Orioles—and for all the buzz around the rematch, no one could have predicted what came next. Manning, at age 37 and beginning his 15th NFL season, passed for seven touchdowns, with no interceptions, and 462 yards. His performance in the 49-27 win was the start of his 55-touchdown season, of which Tom Brady’s ’07 and Patrick Mahomes’s ’18 seasons both fell five TDs short. His passing yards that year, 5,477, also stand as an NFL record. “To do what he did in 2013, having his best season in his career at 37 years old, is something that I don’t know if we’ll ever see again,” Adam Gase, his offensive coordinator that season, said a few years ago. “Not only to have the best season that he had, but to have the best season that a quarterback has had, ever.”
2003 AFC wild-card round (Broncos at Colts)
As most things tangentially involving the Manning family become all about the Manning family, Peyton’s first playoff win quickly became entirely about Peyton. In this case, it was his prior inability to win a playoff game and the preconstructed storyline of his ascent to greatness once he was able to do so. The Colts came into this matchup having lost each of Manning’s three previous postseason games, including a 41-0 shutout against the Jets the year before, but got on the board early with a short pass to Brandon Stokley that the receiver punched into the end zone. It was the first of four first-half touchdowns, in what the football media at large would determine was a narrative-shifting game for the young quarterback, whose gilded football upbringing garnered him a crush of feverish attention at an early age. Perhaps there is some truth to that, as Manning resembled less the frantic, lanky quarterback of his youth and more the field general who led the Colts to a Super Bowl in his ninth NFL season.
The 41-10 loss was so demoralizing to then Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan that he went on an aggressive offseason shopping spree the following year, loading up on secondary help in the hopes that Denver might be able to contain Manning’s offense. “He’s just managed the game incredibly well the entire year and this was just another one of those performances,” Manning’s long-time center Jeff Saturday would say after the game. The Colts followed it up with 38 points the next week at Kansas City, before Manning threw four interceptions in his first AFC championship game at New England.
2009 AFC championship game (Jets at Colts)
This game probably isn’t one that comes to mind right away for most people, especially since they lost to the Saints in the Super Bowl that year, but it happens to be the only time I ever saw Peyton Manning play in person. After the Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez Jets won two road playoff games, they got out to an early lead against the Colts in Indy. Then Manning took over.
I don’t want to say that Manning made everything feel inevitable. That was more Tom Brady’s thing. You’d watch him in a big spot and think how are they going to pull it off this time? But what I remember about watching Peyton in his prime was how he made everything just look so easy. This game was a great example. He got off to a slow start and then I’ll never forget his final drive before halftime. The Jets scored a field goal to go up 17-6 with 2:11 left. After a touchback, Manning drove down the field on four plays: Incompletion, 18 yards to Austin Collie, 46 yards to Collie, 16 yards to Collie for a touchdown. In 58 seconds. He was just zipping passes over the middle of the field, with everyone on earth knowing he was going to throw the ball. Then the first time he touched the ball in the second half: Eight plays, eight pass attempts, another touchdown, Colts take the lead for good.
He finished a ho-hum 26-for-39 with a typical-for-him 377 yards, three touchdowns and no turnovers in a 30-17 win. Against Darrelle Revis and the league’s No. 1 scoring defense, I might add.
I watched so many games like that from him on TV; I’m glad I got to see one in person.
First Game in New Orleans (Colts at Saints)
A 34-20 loss to the Aaron Brooks-led Saints in his first New Orleans homecoming might not have been Peyton Manning's most memorable game, but it did include his most memorable play. (At least to me.)
By 2001 we'd seen fake spikes before, but not one with the level of theatrics Manning brought that afternoon. With the final seconds of the first half ticking away and the Colts rushing to a new line of scrimmage at the New Orleans 33, Manning got the snap at the last moment and not only pulled the fake spike as the clock hit zeroes, but continued to sell it. He made a beeline toward an official, then continued to feign a tantrum while seeming to angrily jog toward the tunnel, ball in hand. He sold it just long enough to reach the end zone, DB Fred Weary shoving him just inside the pylon, for what appeared to be a free six points. Unfortunately, the play had been blown dead—Manning's sell job was so good that he even fooled the officials! Well, it was Jeff Triplette's crew, but still.
The takeaway is this: Manning, even in just his fourth season at age 25, had such a mastery of the position, such next-level preparation, and such an understanding of how opponents would react to everything he did, that he was able to sprinkle in a moment of unique chicanery.
Epilogue: The official ruling was to put one second back on the clock due to the inadvertent whistle, allowing Mike Vanderjagt to come on and hit a 50-yarder as a consolation prize. So it turns out poor game administration isn't just a Riveron Era thing. Plus, this play inspired middle-aged men everywhere to seek fulfillment in the form of similar trick plays but with their youth football teams. (I mean, look at these dumb kids—way to outsmart those children, coach!)
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