TWO MONTHS AGO Peyton Manning hobbled through the worst outing of his professional career, against the Chiefs. He was 5 of 20 for 35 yards with four interceptions. He was sacked twice and he fumbled once. Broncos coach Gary Kubiak pulled Manning in the third quarter, inciting a national debate: Would we—should we—ever see Peyton Manning play football again?
When backup Brock Osweiler played reasonably well, the discussion became even more heated. But I never doubted that once Manning was close to healthy (he had torn the plantar fascia near his left heel), Kubiak would put him back on the field. We're talking about Peyton Manning here—one of the sport's fiercest competitors. And with all due respect to Osweiler as a quarterback, he's no Aaron Rodgers. Manning will lead the Broncos, the No. 1 seed in the AFC, through the playoffs, and that's unequivocally the right call.
The goal all season for Kubiak and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison was simple: preserve Manning. Relieve the pressure on the QB so that by the playoffs he would feel healthy enough. Kubiak also did a good job publicly, and I'm sure privately, of managing Manning's enormous ego. It's not that Manning is egotistical in a bad way—his ego is fueled by competitive desire. It's why he can play after all these years despite his body breaking down.
Whatever physical weakness Manning has at the end of his career—arm strength, an injured foot—he can make up for it with his guts, intelligence and guile. We saw it when Manning, who hadn't played since Week 10, came on in the second half of the season finale in relief of Osweiler. Though he completed only 5 of 9 passes for 69 yards, Manning led four scoring drives. The Broncos defeated the Chargers 27--20 to clinch home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Manning's biggest obstacle to playoff success is a broken offensive line, specifically at right tackle, which late in the season became a weak link. Each of the teams remaining has an excellent defensive line that can get after the quarterback. The Broncos will have to support their right tackles—Michael Schofield and Tyler Polumbus are splitting the job—with a running back, a tight end or an ineligible backup offensive lineman, as the Patriots often do. That takes away a potential receiver who could have roamed downfield, and I know that Manning, like most of us quarterbacks, doesn't want that. He wants five guys attacking the secondary so he has as many targets as possible.
Manning has endured plenty of distractions this season, including last month's Al Jazeera report linking his wife to HGH shipments. On and off the field, this is a legacy-defining postseason for one of the all-time greats. There's no arguing that Manning is one of the most prolific quarterbacks ever. But his playoff performance leaves much to be desired: the five-time MVP has nine one-and-dones in his 14 trips to the postseason. In the conversation about who is the greatest of all time, Brady leads Manning because he has four Super Bowl rings while Manning has one. Leading the Broncos to a championship this season would alter that conversation.
All Manning has to do is win two more football games to get to Santa Clara. Twelve quarters of football and he could be the Super Bowl 50 champion. Maybe, that's when Manning says goodbye. That's when he decides he has done everything he can in this game. He's made a lot of money and can walk away a winner—much as his general manager, John Elway, did after he won his second Super Bowl. In the perfect script for Manning's career, that's how it ends. But saying you'll walk off a Super Bowl champion and actually doing it are two different things. We should all appreciate that we have another chance—maybe the last chance—to watch Peyton Manning try.
Peyton Manning has endured plenty of distractions this season. Now, on and off the field, this is a legacy-defining postseason for one of the NFL's all-time greats.
Can Peyton Manning get the Broncos to the Super Bowl?
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CHAD MATTHEW CARLSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED