clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

'Unique season' finishing in most remarkable way for Manning

Peyton Manning has had one heck of a year. There are parts of it he'd love to erase completely. But that would be to forget the thing about this season that will forever set him apart from his peers - and it has absolutely nothing to do with NFL records or trips to the Super Bowl. It's all about leading by not taking the lead.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In a season that Peyton Manning has been euphemistically calling "unique" since at least the week after he was sidelined, the future Hall-of-Fame quarterback was perhaps more reflective than usual in his comments about the Broncos' 20-18 victory over the Patriots.

"There is no question this is a sweet day, this was a sweet victory," said Manning, who completed 10-of-20 passes for 128 yards with two touchdowns in the first half, which equaled a very "2013 Manning-esque" 103.8 QB rating. He also now has 40 career postseason touchdown passes, which ranks fourth in NFL history.

This victory is a great example of what this entire season has been like. It hasn't been easy. It's been a lot of different people stepping up...This game today was truly a team game.   -Peyton Manning, quarterback

But the second half was much tougher, and Manning and his offense only once made it to the red zone and even then only came away with three points.

Yet that half was more indicative of Manning's season - hard fought and barely coming out on top - and proved, perhaps even to No. 18 himself, that an old dog (er, "seasoned" dog) can be taught new tricks.

"To me, this victory is a great example of what this entire season has been like. It hasn't been easy. It's been a lot of different people stepping up and doing their parts at different times," Manning said after the game, noting the non-starters yesterday and all season who became starters at one time or another. "So it's been a unique season. There's no question about it. And this game today was a unique football game, but everybody did their part, and it truly was a team game."

A team game.

For perhaps the first time in his professional football life, Manning has really been able to experience what it feels like to have a supporting cast that's doing the heavy lifting.

It's been uncomfortable, bumpy and difficult to say the least. Yet Manning and the team have prevailed. And first year head coach Gary Kubiak couldn't be more complimentary of the man who has earned his "Sheriff" moniker more this year than perhaps any other.

"I'm so proud of him," Kubiak said like a father of his son. "I sit here and reflect on some of the meetings he and I had throughout the course of these last 10 weeks and some of the conversations we had. To sit right there and talk about the opportunity we have here in two weeks - I'm just so proud of him."

While Kubiak deserves many accolades for how he handled the quarterback situation that presented itself in Week 10 when Manning was benched midway through the worst game of his football career, the coach was clearly thankful for how Manning turned that situation into motivation when lesser players may have made it a division or distraction to the team.

"[Peyton] worked hard to get back," Kubiak said, noting he realized a few weeks ago Manning was ready, and he called upon the veteran halfway through the final regular season game against San Diego. "For him to step in the huddle, take over the group and the way - this football team just believes he's going to get it done."

Fellow team captain DeMarcus Ware - and rehab compadre for several weeks - also felt that fire from his quarterback.

"That's why I said sometimes age and playing football can be sort of misconstrued a little bit," Ware pointed out after the victory. "They always look at his age, how he's played and maybe injuries, but sometimes when something is important to you, you'll do whatever you can to make it right or to get it done."

Though so many had written No. 18 off in Week 10, Broncos teammates and Manning himself knew better. They have all known deep down to the core that which does not break you, makes you stronger.

When Manning chose to run 12 yards to get a first down yesterday, it was clear Manning's will - if not also his legs - were stronger.

What Broncos Country saw plain as day at Mile High on Championship Sunday, Ware had already known.

"I saw him in the training room the whole time getting ready, and I can see it in his eyes like, ‘You know what, I can't wait to get back on the field,'" Ware recalled of their time together rehabbing to play again. "When he got that opportunity to get back on the field and all the crowd - the 12th man in the Broncos stadium - I can see it in his eyes like ‘he's back.' From that point on, I knew he was ready."

And by "ready," no one was or is expecting Star Wars numbers. What they're expecting is what Manning has always been the best at - leadership, competitiveness, precision dissection of the defense at the line-of-scrimmage, and management.

Emmanuel Sanders, for one, is more than happy to be on this ride with this quarterback. Since early in the season when so many analysts and pundits were questioning Manning, Sanders has been defending him, even saying "Ya'll gonna lay off my quarterback" in an ESPN interview as the season was just getting started and the rumblings were broiling.

Sanders is still behind No. 18 - even if he likes to tease his "old" QB.

"Me personally, I think he still has it, although the critics say he doesn't have it," Sanders added. "You want to talk about a guy that started the season off 7-0 and is now he is going to the Super Bowl. At age 39 or 40 or 70 or how ever old he is, no matter what, he gets the job done. I am just happy he is my teammate."

Getting to play alongside the NFL's No. 1 defense has been a blessing for Manning, who was bailed out by that defense on more games this season than likely his entire career to this point.

And while being a "game manager" often gets a bad rap in the NFL, both Kubiak and John Elway consider it a major compliment.

"[Peyton] has worked hard to get back. He understands where he is at and what we are trying to do offensively," Elway said. "He has always been a great game manager, but even more so now."

And the resilience Elway saw in Manning four years ago when he took a chance on the then 36-year-old quarterback who had just spent a year away from football to have four neck surgeries, is the same resilience Elway witnessed on the field yesterday.

We have seen that resilience Peyton's whole career. You look at what he has done and what he has come back from. He has worked hard to get back. He's always been a great game manager but even more so now. -John Elway

"We have seen that resilience his whole career. You look at what he has done and what he has comeback from. Even four years ago coming back off the neck and I think that is what has made him what he is," said the former Broncos quarterback who knows a thing or two about resilient play. "The resilience that he does have has made him a great competitor and he keeps coming back."

This new role for Manning has certainly been an adjustment for everyone. Britton Colquitt who punted his heart out on Sunday joked after the game that there had been games when Manning is quarterback "that you don't feel like it even matters if you show up sometimes."

But while Manning has been in the limelight for very different reasons this season, he has accepted his role with the same reverence for his teammates, the game and his opponents as he always has.

"There's no question it's been a different season," Manning noted, adding that his "role" and "contributions" have certainly been unusual for him. "I'm fortunate and grateful that I have the opportunity to contribute still in some way, and it's a great honor going back to the Super Bowl, playing in Super Bowl 50. I'm really looking forward to it. It's going to be a fun two weeks."