The Denver Broncos are in the driver’s seat in the AFC West. With games against Tennessee, San Diego, Houston, and Oakland left on the schedule, it’s a very safe bet they finish out the season with just two losses. It is even more likely that Peyton Manning will be collecting the NFL MVP award as well. Hell, even the Colorado Avalanche have returned to their winning ways in the NHL. Yup, it’s not a bad time to be in Denver.
Despite the excitement surrounding the Broncos’ dominant season, there’s an ominous cloud off in the distance; an ominous cloud that has followed Manning to Denver from his earlier years as a Colt. We got a glimpse of it in Foxboro Stadium a few Sundays ago, and it’s the only time anyone in football hesitates when praising Manning. A cloud in the shape of the NFL Playoffs.
If you didn’t see the Broncos and Pats go at it, you missed a regular season game that had eerie signs of what a playoff matchup could be like. It also served as a telling glimpse of Manning v. Brady’s history. Tom Brady led the New England Patriots back from a 24-0 halftime deficit and stole a victory from the Broncos in OT. And as he is infamously criticized for in big games, Manning played poorly.
It’s no secret that Manning has playoff woes. There are fewer talked about things this time of year. Manning’s one Super Bowl ring has done very little in silencing the critics. With a lifetime 9-11 postseason record, it takes more than one Super Bowl to do so. In a position where greatness is measured in rings as much as it is in numbers, Manning falls short of Montana, Elway, Aikman, Brady, and even his own sibling Eli. It’s Manning’s postseason reputation that serves as the only chink in his armor.
The beauty of Peyton Manning is undeniable. Down to earth. Humble. Gracious. Says all the right things. He’s personable and has a sense of humor, as is evident in his multiple commercials. Oh, and he’s one of the greatest minds to play the game of football. He doesn’t just play quarterback; he’s a surgeon. The opposing defense becomes similar to a patient on an operating table. His every move is calculated, precise, and instinctual. His attention to preparation and detail is heralded by all. Quite frankly, it’s hard to hate anything about him. Even me, a pronounced Chiefs fan, can’t dislike Peyton Manning.
Manning’s precision and meticulousness seem to fade when the pressure rises. And that’s where the hesitation begins. You hear it all the time in sports. That guy is just clutch. Robert Horry, also known as “Big Shot Bob”, made an NBA career off clutch. Reggie Jackson’s baseball legacy is tied to clutch play. Tom Brady is widely known as the guy anyone chooses if their team needs a score in the waning minutes of a contest. It’s not always pretty, but they find a way to win. Peyton has never qualified in that category. When his name is mentioned, there is a collective hesitation followed by a proverbial yeah, but.
Many blame the dome in Indy for his failed playoff success. Once exposed to the harsh winter elements that are inescapable in playoff football, he became a shell of himself. Much like marathon runners spending their time on the coast and then heading up to high elevations to compete, Manning seemed to lack the physical toughness playoff weather demanded. Defenders of Manning will cry he ran into the Patriots year in and year out at a time when the Pats were the most dominant franchise in football. But as we all know, including Manning, excuses never erase the result and quarterbacks are often held responsible for a team’s loss. There’s no Monday Morning Running Back.
Last year, Manning’s Broncos seemed to be the perennial favorite to reach the Super Bowl; home-field advantage, a dominant season, and no equal opponent standing in their way. But again, in the frigid winter air, Manning and the Broncos gave away a win to the Ravens. Baltimore would surge on to win the Super Bowl. Many remember that game for the Hail Mary-esque play to Jacoby Jones, the blown safety c overage, and a miracle being answered. But more glaring is the interception Manning threw to set up the game winning score for Baltimore. Again, Manning could not escape his playoff demons.
This year, the Broncos will be riding into the playoffs with the AFC’s best record and home-field advantage. Peyton Manning will have completed one of the most impressive regular seasons in NFL history. And Denver will be favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
Unlike last year though, the road to the Super Bowl will be much more difficult. New England has risen to former form, and as many of my co-workers and I have been saying for a few weeks now, there’s just something about this season that feels like a Patriots Super Bowl. New England matches up well with Denver, and we all know the cold weather track record of Brady v. Manning.
To make matters worse, the Super Bowl will be hosted in NYC in February. For those who haven’t experienced a February there, let me tell you it is flat out frigid. There will be plenty of cold to go around, and with the potential of a Canadian storm front dropping snow, sleet, and freezing rain, you’d think the venue does not favor Peyton. And that makes this postseason that much more interesting.
As the rest of the AFC playoff picture sorts itself out, Peyton Manning and the Broncos will likely handle their business and clinch much needed home-field advantage. And the Firefox to Manning’s Internet Explorer, Tom Brady will likely square off in yet another epic postseason battle at Mile High. Simply put, if Peyton Manning is to shake off the demons of the postseason and cold weather, this year couldn’t be laid out any better for him to do so. Beat Tom Brady in the playoffs, then march to New York and win a Super Bowl in the frigid February air, and Peyton Manning can all but silence the critics. No more hesitations, and most importantly, no more yeah but’s.