This is hardly how Broncos President and GM John Elway and his legendary quarterback Peyton Manning drew it up before the season, but I’m sure both will take it now.
Only two years removed from leading the most explosive offense in the long, storied history of the NFL, this season was supposed to be one of the last great hurrahs for one of the game’s all-time greats, but despite the team’s success, it has undoubtedly been one of the longest seasons of Peyton’s illustrious career.
In his prime, a master at manipulating the opposition’s defense, exposing mismatches and exploiting them with surgical precision, Peyton had seen his arm strength sapped by multiple neck surgeries, injuries that may have ended lesser competitor’s careers, but not Manning. Instead he found a way, relying on his mental edge more than ever, and for two years he was able to fool everybody in the league, leading the Broncos to an appearance in Super Bowl 48 in the process.
However, in 2015 it had seemed as though Manning the wizard had finally run out of magic. Battling injuries from the start, Peyton now possessed the weakest throwing arm of any quarterback in the NFL. Defenses feasted as he floated duck after duck at his receivers, to the tune of 17 interceptions after only eight and a half games. No matter how many audibles or “Omahas” he called at the line, he just couldn’t make up for his aging and injury riddled body.
Finally Broncos Coach Gary Kubiak had seen enough. He benched Manning, and the team quickly revealed that Peyton was suffering from a torn plantar fascia, and would need an extended stay on the injured list to recover. Backup Brock Osweiler stepped in as Manning’s replacement, and the team leaned heavily on its number one rated defense, going 4-2 in Peyton’s absence.
This formula worked until the final game of the regular season. With the Broncos needing a win against the lowly Chargers to ensure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, Coach Kubiak was forced to turn back to “the Sheriff.” In a surprise move, with his team looking listless on the field, he called on number eighteen to save the day.
In came riding Manning, practically on a white horse, slinging it like the old days. While he didn’t exactly light the Chargers up, he steadied the offense, and for the first time all year, he made it through a game without throwing an interception, leading the Broncos to a 27-24 win. More importantly, he had shown enough zip to regain Coach Kubiak’s trust, just in time for the playoffs.
Manning was able to ride his hot streak, and seemingly renewed arm strength two weeks later in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, tossing a turnover free 222 yards against the Steelers in a 23-17 win, ensuring at least one last matchup against longtime foe Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, with a trip to Super Bowl 50 on the line.
In an upset almost no one predicted, Manning and the Broncos won 20-18, with Peyton again playing mistake-free football to the tune of 176 yards and 2 TDs. In a story book ending that seemed almost too good to be true, Manning was guaranteed at least one last shot at that elusive second Super Bowl crown, to finally cement his legacy as the greatest ever, and shake the tag that he just can’t seem to win the big ones.
Despite having virtually every passing record of any significance, both in a season as well as a career, Manning has long been dogged as the greatest regular season quarterback ever, however, it’s a title he can finally rid himself of if he can do what almost no one thinks he can, and somehow find a way to lead his team over the upstart Carolina Panthers and likely league MVP Cam Newton in Super Bowl 50. Just like the man who brought him to Denver, GM John Elway, everything has aligned for Manning to win that second ring every great QB needs to secure his legacy, and then ride off into the sunset.
After two neck surgeries, and the abomination that was the 2015 regular season, if he somehow manages to work this one last miracle, who would blame him? February 7th I know who I’ll be cheering for.
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