This is the way it was supposed to end, with Peyton Manning walking off the field a Super Bowl champion.
By TONY BENDER
I usually write these columns on Sundays, but hoping for an outcome that most experts predicted was quite unlikely, I held off until now—4:45 on a Monday morning.
You can’t spend any time in Denver—and I lived there for three years—without bleeding a little Bronco orange, so when Manning became Denver’s adopted son in the downside of a brilliant career, I adopted him, too.
In fact, he was my first pick in Fantasy Football, an annual curse that doomed him to “a unique season,” as he called it, which is another way of saying, “miserable.”
The arm, already diminished by age and a series of neck surgeries and resultant nerve damage, was even weaker this year, allowing defensive backs to sit back and steal wobbly passes. Manning was injured and then relegated to the bench as his understudy, Brock Osweiler, kept Denver headed to the playoffs.
Osweiler had a shaky outing in the last game of the regular season. Manning came off the bench to beat San Diego and reclaim the starting position. Still, with Denver’s fast, ferocious defense carrying the load for an anemic, decidedly un-Manning-like offense, it was hard to expect too much.
This was supposed to be a coronation, a changing of the guard, with the impossibly gifted Cam Newton, who had one of the best seasons any quarterback has ever had, passing for 35 touchdowns and running, often in spectacular fashion, for another 10. It was a joyful display of football, even if criticism about his endzone celebrations from cranky purists dampened the mood.
The Broncos defense, led by 68-year-old coordinator Wade Philips, had the cure for those “excessive” celebrations. You keep the man out of the end zone.
Two weeks earlier, in the AFC Championship, Philips had crafted a relentless plan against the almost universally-reviled New England Patriots and their evil-genius coach Bill Belichick, a plan that resulted in quarterback Tom Brady being sacked four times and hit 20 other times.
The Panthers were exposed for what they were, a good team, tough defensively, but only marginally talented on offense, aside from the brilliance of Cam Newton, and, in the ultimate team game, that just won’t get it done.
Just ask Broncos general manager John Elway, who, as a gunslinging quarterback, carried the Broncos to the stage for what would become three wrenching Super Bowl losses, only to return in the twilight of his career with a Hall of Fame running back, Terrell Davis, and a stout defense, to win two times.
Don’t think the formula was lost on Elway, especially after the Seahawks steamrolled Manning and the Broncos two years earlier in the Super Bowl, 43-8. With Hall of Fame running backs in short supply, Elway concentrated on building a defense for the ages, fast, relentless, brilliant in coverage, fierce in the pass rush. Newton, generously listed at 6-5 and 245 pounds, give or take 20 pounds, was manhandled in the pocket, while his receivers found scant daylight against a maliciously sticky secondary.
Final score: 24-10. It wasn’t pretty. There were no heroics from the 39-year-old Manning and none necessary. At what will likely be the end of a first ballot Hall of Fame career, Manning, the Sheriff, was able to shelve the ego of a gunslinger and play as the tactician of a formidable posse.
Meanwhile, Newton, 26, had one of those days when there simply aren’t any answers. He could have handled it more gracefully, though. The league MVP and “new face of the NFL” was surly and petulant after the game and walked out in the middle of his press conference, indicating he has a lot to learn.
If you’re going to dance when you win, you have to face the music when you lose.
Manning exited graciously with a series of cliches, like team, family, beer and God, refusing to upstage a team moment by announcing his retirement.
A man who has seemingly wrung every last drop of ability from his body, understands the script all too well. Sunsets are made for old gunslingers, silhouetted against an orangish sky.
No longer the fastest, but still tall in the saddle, they ride off to immortality.
© Tony Bender, 2016