Peyton Manning is something more than one of the NFL’s all-time great quarterbacks.
He’s one of it’s greatest all-time players, period.
He has the countless records, the five MVP awards and 14 Pro Bowl nods to prove it.
All that, and a championship ring and multiple Super Bowl appearances.
Yet despite it all, if you are emotionally invested in the Colts or Broncos, then you know Manning’s career has been something less than wholly satisfying. It’s been, to put it charitably, underwhelming.
To put it accurately, it’s been disappointing.
We’re talking, of course, about the postseason. It hasn’t been kind to Peyton.
Manning has started 25 playoff games, including three Super Bowls. His record is 12-13, including 1-2 in the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl losses are noteworthy in that he sealed the Colts’ fate with a late interception against the Saints in the 2010 Super Bowl and was totally embarrassed in a 43-8 loss to the Seahawks at the end of the 2013-14 season.
As Colts fans know better than anyone, and as Denver fans have found out, Manning’s regular-season greatness seldom extends to the postseason.
But no matter.
At age 39, Manning still can go out on top and in the process greatly enhance his mixed legacy.
Tom Brady is a big reason why.
On Sunday, Manning and Brady will clash for the 17th time in their illustrious careers. Brady’s Patriots are 11-5 against Manning and will, in light of history and other factors, be favored against the top-seeded Broncos.
This is Manning’s golden — and no doubt last — opportunity to one-up Brady when it matters most, get his team to the Super Bowl and enter retirement with a second ring.
If there was ever a legacy game for Manning, this is it. He can literally write his own happy ending.
Denver is the top seed but by no means the favorite. Manning was not the same Manning early in the season. He sat out six games with a torn plantar fascia. When he returned, it was as Brock Osweiler’s backup.
Although firmly re-entrenched as the starter after relieving the struggling Osweiler in the regular-season finale, Manning still isn’t the MVP Manning of yesteryear. Yet that’s what he’ll have to be against the defending Super Bowl champions, who have many of their previously injured offensive weapons back.
Brady will be Brady. So Manning will have to be Manning. That is, the old Manning. The one who threw 39 touchdown passes last season and 55 the year before that. Not the Manning who has thrown a career-low nine this season, with a quarterback rating of 67.9 — also a career-low.
Oh, and he’s also thrown 17 interceptions, the most since 2010, his last full season with the Colts.
Those kinds of numbers will not beat Tom Brady. No matter how well Denver’s defense plays, Brady will make plays. That’s a given. It’s the AFC Championship Game, and it’s Peyton Manning. So Brady will make plays.
The question is, will Manning make plays? Or more to the point, can Manning make plays?
Physically, he is not the player he once was. The well-documented neck surgeries have surely taken a toll. Same with the foot injury. If there was ever a time for Manning to win a game with his smarts, this is it.
But smarts might not be enough. Not against the Patriots. Not against Brady.
Somehow, someway, Manning has to recapture a bit of that old-time magic. Not the kind that’s failed him so many times in the playoffs, but the kind that has made him the greatest regular-season quarterback of all time.
If Manning can do that, he can author the final chapter of his 18-year career in true storybook fashion.
Here’s hoping he can.
Rick Morwick is sports editor for the Daily Journal in Johnson County, a sister paper of The Tribune. Send comments to [email protected].