By Matthew Ajaj
Coming into a Thursday Night Football matchup in Week Two against the Kansas City Chiefs, 39-year-old Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning was faced with an unfamiliar forecast — the football world expected him to fail. His exorbitant amount of records and five MVP awards held no weight anymore — Peyton was finished. The naysayers had a case — the Broncos’ signal caller had struggled down the stretch last season and looked like a shell of his former self against the Baltimore Ravens just four days prior. Nevertheless, by the time the game was over, the cynics were nowhere to be found. Denver won the contest, 31-24. Peyton Manning filled up the stat sheet with a game-tying final drive and the Denver defense sealed the win by forcing a fumble six in the final seconds. Broncos fans were riding high back in the Mile-High City as their superstar QB was back to his old self.
Well, that is what the box score would tell the observer, at least. Manning’s 256 passing yards and three touchdowns against a formidable defense are certainly nothing to scoff about. But beyond the numbers, this was not a pretty game for Peyton. Midway through the second quarter, he felt the heat on a Chiefs blitz and heaved the ball blindly before his receiver could even make it out of his break, resulting in horrible pick-six returned by rookie cornerback Marcus Peters.
Throughout the night, Peyton’s passes fluttered like dying ducks, seeming to float in the air for an eternity until gravity grew disinterested. Although the scorecard indicates just one Manning interception, the Chiefs secondary would have told you that they should have snagged two or three more.
With his aging arm not on the same page as his genius football mind, Peyton could not zip balls into tight windows nor hit his men in stride on deep passes, as he used to do just a few short years ago. He demonstrated zero mobility in the pocket, unable to even execute a play-action rollout pass without looking like he was wearing lead boots.
To his credit, Manning was able to orchestrate a beautiful final drive, matriculating the ball down the field with sluggish yet sublime passes — with the final one ending up in the hands of wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in the end zone for a game-tying touchdown. Denver got the win, but their QB was anything but flawless. On that night, Manning was just good enough.
And yet, good enough is all the Denver Broncos need him to be. Peyton Manning, a perennial superstar forever in the spotlight, has played many roles throughout his career — Franchise Face, All-Pro, Big Brother, Playoff Choke Artist, Super Bowl Champion, Record Holder, Most Valuable Player — but now he must prepare for his final act: Manning must step behind the curtains and be the stagehand.
When Manning exits stage right, the defense enters the gridiron and puts on a dazzling show. Most may not see it yet, but the 2015 Denver defense is one of the most menacing defenses in NFL history. Their secondary sports three 2014 Pro Bowlers, and their linebacking corps starring Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and Brandon Marshall is by far the best in the league. With defensive mastermind Wade Phillips now handling the headset as a coordinator, this defense knows no bounds.
On offense, Manning has a terrific receiving tandem in Demaryius Thomas and Sanders, but his running backs are unproven and the offensive line is shaky at best. Contrary to the past three years, the Denver defense outshines the offense.
In his post-game interview from Thursday night, Manning looked exhausted yet happier than we have ever seen him. He was so exhilarated to get this victory because of how hard he had to work for it: winning does not come easy with an old body, a dying arm and no offensive line.
At his current state, Manning will not win games by trying to be the Manning of old. He simply does not have that in him anymore, nor does the construction of his offense support that notion. Manning will have to rely on his immaculate accuracy, because that is all he has left. Slinging scorching passes into narrow frames and launching deep pass dimes are in the past — that Peyton is dead.
But as they say, the show must go on.
Now, Peyton will have to be merely a game manager, letting his top tier receivers get open and make the plays while he focuses on limiting turnovers — Von Miller and company will take care of the rest and rake in the wins. The defense is now the star of the production — all Manning must do is set up the backdrops and hand out the brochures. In what looks to be Peyton Manning’s final year, The Sheriff and his cast are in Super Bowl-or-bust mode and have a great shot at taking home the gold.