If Peyton Manning felt the presence of ghosts Sunday at Gillette Stadium, well, can you blame him?
They were there, and not in apparition form, either.
Seventeen of the 22 players who won three championship rings as Patriots were on the field in flesh-and-blood and full living color at halftime, reminders — not by accident, either — of what the Patriots had accomplished a decade ago, and what Manning had not.
Among them were some of Manning’s chief tormentors during those mostly unfulfilled cut-that-meat years with the Colts: Ty Law and Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi and Richard Seymour.
And of course, an 18th was there as well, but business in the present kept him from the party celebrating the past. Tom Brady has three rings too, as you may have heard, and the quest for a fourth suddenly seems more plausible than it did even a month ago.
Chances are Manning did not encounter the ghosts of AFC Championship games past as they were honored at halftime. He was surely too busy trying to solve Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia’s defensive scheme. Or perhaps he was squeezing in the filming of a Papa John’s commercial.
But there’s no doubt he felt their presence. Not just because so many old timers were in the neighborhood, but because what happened on the field felt just like old times.
The Patriots’ 43-21 victory felt like it was plucked right out of a highlight real from the Patriots’ title-winning, Manning-antagonizing heyday, and it’s the most encouraging sign yet that a special season might be unfolding.
Wasn’t it fun to see Manning, vexed by the Patriots’ coverage schemes, then muttering and tearing off his chin-strap in frustration again, like he used to do so often in his Colts youth, before he began solving the Patriots in big moments from time to time?
Wasn’t it fun to see Julian Edelman channel vintage Troy Brown, damaging the Broncos with dynamic play in the passing game and on special teams? His 84-yard punt return for a touchdown was reminiscent of Brown’s performance in the 2001 AFC Championship Game against the Steelers, with just a hint of Bethel Johnson’s crucial kick return for a touchdown just before halftime in a 38-34 victory by the Patriots in November 2003.
Wasn’t it fun to see Brandon LaFell play like an amalgam of David Givens and David Patten? LaFell has become the receiver some among us pretended Kenbrell Thompkins might become.
Wasn’t it fun to see Akeem Ayers — a Patriot for all of two games — channel McGinest, a Patriot for all-time, with a timely, athletic sack?
Wasn’t it fun to see Manning hit a wide-open Rob Ninkovich, doing all those Mike Vrabel things again, for an ill-timed interception?
Wasn’t it fun to see Brandon Browner channel the best moments of a one-time Patriots champ, Tebucky Jones, by setting a physical tone in the defensive backfield? Yes, he’s penalty-prone, but its worth it. The intimidation factor Browner brings is essential, and the flags come with the territory.
All that was missing was an interception thrown to a future Hall of Fame cornerback from Alquippa, Pa. wearing a No. 24 jersey. I’m surprised Darrelle Revis didn’t come up with a pick yesterday. I’m sort of surprised Ty Law didn’t, either.
Now, I’m not suggesting we should start booking flights to Arizona for Super Bowl XLIX on February 1. There’s a long way to go, and while this looks like their most versatile and well-rounded roster in years — a hell of a feat in itself given that they’ve been to the last three AFC title games — they’re going to require the luck and good fortune that has eluded them in recent seasons.
Keeping Rob Gronkowski healthy is imperative. Same for Brady, of course, and Revis. And the upward trend in overall performance needs to continue, from the 37-year-old quarterback who is playing better than he did a decade ago to the last man on the roster.
Barring an unforeseen circumstance, they’re going to run into Manning and the Broncos again. That’s never easy, even if a final score such as yesterday’s suggests that it was.
The living ghosts, rattling their championship rings, are always welcome around here. But the cool part is this: they may not be necessary.
At the moment, the Patriots’ present is looking an awful lot like the best days of their past. They’re not just celebrating legacies. They may well be in the midst of building them.