If this is how it ends for Peyton Manning, if this is… wait, just you hold on right there, mister. Don’t say another word. Perish that thought before it can be completed.
This cannot be how it ends for Manning, with one more lackluster playoff loss. There needs to be something more, one more chapter, one more addendum or epilogue, one more season of Manning audibling against the hourglass in desperate pursuit of a second championship.
Do not mistake this as some kind of Nantzian maudlin appreciation for all of the large passing numbers and television ratings Manning has accumulated over the years. This is no salute. It’s a plea. Don’t go now, Peyton. Don’t go yet.
Don’t quit now after your ninth — ninth! — career one-and-done. Don’t let the fifth postseason loss after a bye week and your sixth playoff loss to a higher-seeded team get you down like rainy days and Wes Welker drops and Eli’s Super Bowl wins.
Here in New England, home of so many of your nemeses — Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, cornerbacks in No. 24 jerseys who hail from Aliquippa, Pa., pizza far superior to Papa John’s ketchup-and-cheese-like-substance-on-cardboard recipe — we’re not ready to see you go.
Because dammit, we’re not done with you, Peyton. Don’t let that predictable bummer of a Sunday finish you. We still have unfinished business with you.
Discussion regarding whether we witnessed the final scenes of Manning’s outstanding yet overrated dramedy of a career Sunday during his Broncos’ suspense-free 24-13 loss to the Colts is valid. Hell, it’ll probably be a hotter topic this week than anything involving the four teams still playing.
After all, the only suspense Manning and the Broncos could muster Sunday happened in the aftermath, when the quarterback did little to discourage the notion that he might consider retirement, essentially saying that he needed some time to think.
“I can’t answer every what-if circumstance,” said Manning when asked if he’d be back for a fourth season in Denver. “What if you’re not as healthy? What if certain coaches leave? I can’t answer every what-if situation. I think I’ll have to take some time to see how I feel, see how I feel physically.”
I doubt he’ll retire. But Sunday, as strange as it is to say given that he did throw for 4,727 yards and 39 touchdowns this season, he looked like a quarterback who should at least take a career change into consideration. So many of Manning’s passes — 20 of 46, to be more precise than he was — fell incomplete during the Broncos’ 24-13 loss to the Colts Sunday.
Consequently, his Broncos, who spent the offseason collecting Pro Bowl regulars on the free-agent market in a load-’em-up push for the Super Bowl, saw their goals fall incomplete as well.
Manning threw for just 211 yards — or a puny 4.6 per attempt — in Sunday’s loss, which was statistical confirmation of the visceral truth. His arm has been so weakened by injury and age that his fertile football mind, with all of that knowledge cultivated from a lifetime spent absorbing the game’s nuances, can no longer compensate.
If we weren’t so familiar with his famous football bloodlines — son of Archie, brother of Eli — one might think he came from a quarterback tree of particularly weak branches. In his Colts heyday, Manning had a laser-rocket arm. Now? He’s a damn good Danny Wuerffel impersonator.
OK, maybe that’s hyperbole. He’s more like Chad Pennington. He has a beautiful football mind and an arm incapable of heeding its commands. His fastball has become a changeup, his helium-infused, receiver-endangering passes taking on the trajectory of rainbow — beautiful, arcing, and never actually leading to a pot of gold. He’s better at serenading chicken parm sandwiches than he is completing passes of more than 5 yards — he was 6 of 21 beyond that piddling distance Sunday.
It’s impossible not to notice the fitting symmetry of Sunday’s defeat. Manning was surpassed by his successor with the Colts, the gifted Andrew Luck, who is equipped with every physical tool Peak Peyton had and some he did not.
Manning’s 14-season run with the Colts ended in part because he lost the 2011 season due to a career-threatening neck injury, allowing the franchise for whom he was everything to position itself to select its next franchise quarterback. Their resurgence has been by Luck and design.
It was an irresistible opportunity for the Colts. And it was a golden one for Broncos boss John Elway, who saw Manning as just the quick-fix necessary to lead Denver to its first Super Bowl victory since… well, since Elway’s job title was quarterback, 16 seasons ago.
The cruel irony is that Manning’s performance Sunday has to go down as one of his greatest contributions to a Colts playoff win in his career. While Elway retired a champion in 1998 — coincidentally Manning’s rookie season — the latter is now 11-13 in the postseason.
We know the truth: the greatest measure of a Manning, the greatest small-game quarterback in NFL history, is not the distance of his passes, but his PBA/SBV Ratio. That just-made-up acronym, which Football Outsiders is free to co-opt for a small fee, obviously stands for Pro Bowl appearances to Super Bowl victories.
Manning’s currently stands at 14-to-1. Talk about your insurmountable records. Three-time Lombardi Trophy hoister Tom Brady would have to make 42 Pro Bowl to match that — and that number might become 56 in a couple of weeks, if you get the drift.
If this is it for Manning, I suppose it is an appropriate end based on both opponent and outcome. The juxtaposition of Manning flaming out in the first round for the ninth time — possibly the most unbelievable statistic of his flawed, decorated career — as Tom Brady advances to his ninth AFC championship game after an epic gut-check victory over the Ravens is also apt in a way.
But it is not the perfect ending, not from a New England perspective. The Patriots and Broncos were supposed to meet next Sunday; the conclusion, given how both franchises stockpiled their rosters with the other in mind in the offseason, was as forgone as anything can be in the NFL. Yet only one will be there. Manning, with every advantage, could not hold up his end of the deal.
That has been a constant theme throughout his postseason career. Yet somehow, despite losing 11 of 16 career regular-season matchups against Brady, he’s mustered a 2-2 record in the postseason against the Patriots.
There was the 2006 AFC Championship Game comeback — a maddening, haunting, wasted opportunity by the Patriots — which led to such a mismatch in the Super Bowl against Rex Grossman and the Chicago Bears so overwhelming that even Manning couldn’t screw it up. And there was last year’s AFC title game victory in Denver, when the Broncos’ enormous talent advantage on offense won out.
It doesn’t seem right that Manning could depart without giving the Patriots one more rematch, one more shot at vindication. No fan with any context and common sense is ever going to complain about the path to a championship. But there is an extra element of fun when a longtime nemesis is vanquished along the way. You want your legend to last laugh.
In retrospect, the Yankees dynasty actually ended in the World Series loss to the Diamondbacks in 2001. But around here, all ghosts were exorcised in October 2004, and the Red Sox’ first World Series title in 86 seasons was just a little sweeter because the wicked Yankees were taken down in such memorable fashion.
It still pisses me off that Magic Johnson won two more titles than Larry Bird. And it pisses me off that Manning overcame the Patriots en route to winning his single, sole Super Bowl. That one of the league’s all-time great front-runners won anything at the Patriots’ expense remains a source of minor agitation. Sort of like Manning himself.
I know, we’re supposed to be deferential to what he’s meant to the league and all he’s accomplished. I figure we can let others take care of the final deification; Manning will not lack for saccharine soliloquies from the national media whenever he does call it a career.
If this is goodbye, at least it’s an honest one. Losing to the Colts was a neat trick, but I want to see Manning receive an even more fitting final comeuppance. I want to see Brady and the Patriots prove once more, head to head, that the rivalry among the two greatest quarterbacks of this generation was not a rivalry at all when it mattered. Don’t you?
So how about it, Peyton? Give it one more year. Just one more. Brady is going to be headed to his sixth Super Bowl soon, and we will never take these trips to the edge of the mountaintop for granted. Hell, no one needs to tell you how hard it is to get there, let alone win.
But next year, when the Patriots make an inevitable run at that seventh visit, we’re hoping you’re still continuing your quest, too. The Patriots have last year’s loss to avenge, and it’s only right that Brady and Belichick are the ones who end it once and for all for you.
Besides, you’d be a much easier matchup than that kid in Indianapolis.