Peyton Manning wasn’t the story of the AFC Championship game, not really. He’ll be the story of Super Bowl 50, no doubt, and he should be the story of Super Bowl 50 after coming back from all those injuries and a backup stint to chase his second Super Bowl victory.
But the story of the Broncos’ 20-18 win over the New England Patriots Sunday in Denver was that of the Broncos defense, the second coming of the Orange Crush. The top defense in the regular season was the top defense of the post-season, savaging Tom Brady in a way he hasn’t been savaged since those two Super Bowl losses to the New York Giants.
Manning will get the headlines out in Santa Clara, and he should get the headlines. But the headlines today and tomorrow and for the next few days should focus on DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller and Derek Wolfe and the rest of the Denver pass rushers and secondary who had Brady seeing ghosts. Time and again, the Patriots appeared to be on the cusp of grabbing the lead; time and again, the Denver defense turned them away, finally foiling the game-ending two-point-conversion try when Aqib Talib tipped Brady’s pass and sent it fluttering into teammate Bradley Roby’s arms.
How often does your offense generate just 267 total yards and win and AFC title game, much less one against the New England Patriots? Not often.
"Well, there’s no question this is a sweet day, this was a sweet victory," Manning told reporters in Denver. "To me, this victory is a great example of what this entire season has been like. It hasn’t been easy."
For one of the very few times in Manning’s career, he has a team that can carry him, just the way the 1999 Broncos helped carry John Elway to a second straight Super Bowl victory – and a Super Bowl MVP trophy. They run the ball reasonably well, although they struggled Sunday. And man, can they play defense. When Brady wasn’t getting hit, he was anticipating getting hit. Pressure makes even the greatest quarterbacks look ordinary.
The only Colts team that can compare with this Denver group was the 2005 edition with its top-rated defense, and that team somehow lost at home to the Pittsburgh Steelers when Mike Vanderjagt’s long field goal try at game’s end landed somewhere east of Zionsville. Ask Tony Dungy or any Colt of longstanding, and they’ll tell you that 2005 team was the best Colts team of all time. Crazy thing is, Indy won the Super Bowl the next season, resuscitating an awful run defense on the way to a championship.
Manning’s numbers were humble Sunday: 17-of-32 for 176 yards and two touchdowns. But here’s the important number: zero interceptions. They didn’t have to be great. He’s now a game manager, which sounds like a pejorative, but is simply an acknowledgment of who he is now, merely the oldest quarterback (39) ever to lead his team to the Super Bowl.
"I’m so proud of him [Manning]," Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak said. "I sit here and reflect on some of the meetings he and I had throughout the course of these last 10 weeks and some of the conversations we had. To sit here and talk about the opportunity we have here in two weeks – I’m just so proud of him. He worked hard to get back. I knew about three weeks ago or four weeks ago through a discussion we had that he was ready to come back and lead this football team, and he’s done a tremendous job."
Afterwards, Manning celebrated with his father, Archie, and his children, who are now at an age where they can truly appreciate what their father is doing and what he has long represented. I can remember one year ago, we were in the hallway outside the Broncos locker room after the Colts’ divisional playoff victory, and Manning’s two kids were crying, saying, "Daddy, we lost," and then running into their father’s comforting arms. It was a very different scene this time.
"Oh, it’s special," Manning said. "Coach [Gary] Kubiak talked about it during the week – about soaking it up for everybody. He mentioned [Broncos linebacker} DeMarcus [Ware], the year that he’s had and the limited amount of playoff games he’s been in. It’s not something that you take for granted."
In the end, we are all sentimentalists, all suckers for a great story, and unless you’re a Patriots fan, you have to love what happened Sunday and what will be happening the next two weeks. With Manning back in the Super Bowl for the fourth time – the second time as a Bronco – it’s as if a piece of Indianapolis is out there with him. Manning is one of the great comeback stories in all of sports, initially coming back from all those neck surgeries, then fighting through the more recent spate of injuries and a stint as Brock Osweiler’s backup.
This is good.
This is sweet.
This is right.
Would it be any good if he leads the Broncos to a victory over the Carolina Panthers and leaves the game forever atop the shoulders of his teammates, a two-time Super Bowl champion, his career narrative changed for good?
Yes. Yes, it would be good. Better than good.?