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AS DENVER TURNS

Jan. 25, 2016
Jan. 25, 2016

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Jan. 25, 2016

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AS DENVER TURNS

PEYTON MANNING's season has been filled with more plot twists than a daytime drama, and by beating Pittsburgh he extended it for another episode: a must-see showdown with Tom Brady

This is an article from the Jan. 25, 2016 issue

THE OLD man dressed at his locker, tugging on his checkered blue suit and knotting his red tie with blue stripes. By that point it didn't matter that his passes had wobbled like wounded seagulls on this windy Sunday afternoon in Denver. Or that his receivers reacted to those throws as if they were allergic to pigskin, dropping at least seven. Or that few seemed to consider his Broncos anything other than the worst team remaining in the playoffs, despite their 23--16 win over the Steelers.

What mattered to Peyton Manning was that he had extended his season by another week and was returning to another AFC championship game and adding another chapter—perhaps the last—in one of the most storied rivalries in sports. That would be Brady-Manning, as in Tom and Peyton, two quarterbacks who have defined a generation. Sunday, in their 17th showdown, they will play for a spot in Super Bowl 50.

When Manning strode into the interview room that narrative had already been established. He felt no need to contribute to it. He answered two questions about Brady and the Patriots without saying the words Brady or Patriots. He wanted to enjoy this win first.

As the fourth quarter started, Denver trailed 13--12, even though Pittsburgh was without its leading receiver (Antonio Brown, concussion) and rusher (DeAngelo Williams, right foot). The home crowd at Mile High began to boo, offended by the offense. The jeers seemed to center, in large part, on the 39-year-old Manning, who was embroiled in the strangest of his 18 seasons. He was pulled from a loss to the Chiefs in Week 10 after throwing four interceptions, missed six games after he tore the plantar fascia near his left heel and then returned in the regular-season finale, replacing Brock Osweiler, to guide a come-from-behind 27--20 win over the Chargers—while angrily denying an Al Jazeera report that loosely linked him to HGH use.

Manning's—and Denver's—resilience was evident on Sunday, especially early in the fourth quarter, when Manning fell down, stood up and found receiver Emmanuel Sanders downfield for a 34-yard gain (a play he said he'd like to erase from the film reel on Monday morning). And also when cornerback Bradley Roby forced a fumble by running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. Rush end DeMarcus Ware recovered it to set up a 13-play, 6:52 drive that culminated in C.J. Anderson's one-yard run for the go-ahead touchdown.

Manning finished with 21 completions in 37 attempts for 222 yards. But his most poignant connection took place after the final horn sounded, when he handed the game ball to receiver Demaryius Thomas and told him to give it to his mother, Katina Smith. While Thomas was becoming an NFL star, Smith was serving a 15-year prison term for her role in a cocaine trafficking ring. She had never seen her son play in person until Sunday.

What she saw was a Broncos team with an old man at quarterback that rode a dominant defense to its 10th win by seven points or fewer. As Thomas exited the locker room, he carried the football in his right hand and met his mother in the corridor, where they embraced.

The most debated rivalry in sports could wait. At least until Monday morning.

PHOTOROBERT BECK FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDSOUND FAMILIAR?. For the fifth time, Manning will play for the AFC championship.