DENVER -- He was locked in a tense battle against a proud, resolute opponent, a brisk, Rocky Mountain wind and, most menacing of all, the cold touch of Father Time. Then suddenly, early in the fourth quarter of Sunday's Divisional Round playoff game at Sports Authority Field, Peyton Manning found himself flat on his stomach, thinking, I've fallen and I can't get up.
It was an embarrassing, somewhat sobering moment for one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to have played, a 39-year-old with diminishing skills carrying the stark realization that this is quite likely his last shot at capturing a second championship. And for all that No. 18 has experienced in his 18-year career, starring in a reenactment of former L.A. Rams quarterback Jim Everett's *phantom sack* from the 1989 NFC Championship Game was not what he had in mind on this chilly mid-January afternoon.
Sure enough, when I tossed out the comparison to Everett's ignominious flop while standing in the Denver Broncos' locker room Sunday evening, as Manning was heading to the showers, the sport's most notorious perfectionist stopped and shook his head sheephishly.
"That was a new one," Manning said, then turned and resumed his stride. He was about to disappear into the shower area when he pivoted and added, "Hey -- I got up, though."
Oh yes, he did -- and so, in the end, did the top-seeded Broncos, who rallied to secure a 23-16 victory over the valiant Pittsburgh Steelers in front of 76,956 fans. Thanks to a near-seven-minute stretch of clutch and precise offense, one which belied the unit's choppy, imprecise performance throughout the rest of the game, Manning and the Broncos advanced to fight another day.
And what a day it will be. Fittingly, that battle will be waged against Tom Brady and the second-seeded New England Patriots at Sports Authority Field in next Sunday's AFC Championship Game, treating the sports world to what will likely be the final matchup between the two greatest quarterbacks of their era. Brady-Manning XVII (that's 17, for you non-Roman-numeral aficionados) seemed like a pipe dream back in late November, when the Broncos' struggling starter sat in an upstairs box at Sports Authority with a walking cast on his left foot and watched his replacement, Brock Osweiler, shine in a 30-24 overtime victory over the Pats.
Against all odds, Manning got his job back after getting healthy -- and on Sunday, in a vulnerable sequence that would serve as a metaphor for his and his teammates' resilience, he got up off the turf and made a play.
The Broncos trailed 13-12 with 13:15 left in the game when Manning, on first-and-10 from his own 20, took a snap from under center and faked a handoff to halfback Ronnie Hillman. With Steelers safety Will Allen blitzing off the left edge, Manning stepped forward to avoid the pressure, slipped on the grass and fell forward, landing on the 14-yard-line. The whole world seemed to stop for a couple of seconds -- so, in fairness, did the Steelers, who believed Manning had either been sacked or had given himself up -- before Manning, realizing he hadn't been touched down, decided to try to make caviar out of cow droppings.
Rising gingerly to his feet, Manning flailed forward and delivered a wobbly floater toward receiver Emmanuel Sanders on the left sideline. Manning's receivers had treated many of his passes like poison-oak-covered mud cakes throughout the first three quarters, but Sanders caught this one at the 35 and swept up the sideline until being forced out of bounds by cornerback William Gay for a 34-yard gain.
It would be Manning's longest completion of a game in which he mustered pedestrian numbers (21-of-37, 222 yards, no touchdowns) but put up a much-needed goose egg in the most important category of all: turnovers. For the first time this season, Manning started a game in which he did not throw a single interception, giving the Broncos a chance to gut out a game they looked in grave danger of losing.
"He's been out so long, and been through so much, and he's just doing whatever it takes to win and get another chance at the Super Bowl," said Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas, who caught four passes and a key two-point conversion. "It's not gonna be perfect, and that (expletive) wind was a nightmare, but hey, we had no turnovers and he managed the field well."
Added cornerback Chris Harris, who fought through a painful shoulder injury that left him unable to contain Steelers wideout Martavis Bryant (nine catches, 154 yards; two rushes, 40 yards): "He needs to do just what he did today: No turnovers, run the ball, take what they give you and lean on the defense. That's what Peyton has to do."
Manning must follow this blueprint because -- let's be honest -- his once-mighty skill set has eroded precipitously. For all the inspirational moments he provided in his first three years with the Broncos, after having fought through four neck surgeries and the lost 2011 season that ended his long run as the epicenter of the Indianapolis Colts' universe, Manning is no longer close to the passer he once was. He can't put as much on the ball as he used to, and defenses have shrunk the field in response, forcing him to throw earlier and, at times, with less accuracy.
Throw in the plantar fascia injury that flared up in November and he looked perilously close to finished. After throwing four interceptions in a 29-13 defeat to the Kansas City Chiefs in mid-November, Manning was pulled from what would be the worst statistical game of his life and told to rehab his injury while watching Osweiler run the Denver offense. And when Osweiler proved to be efficient, less-turnover-prone and better suited to coach Gary Kubiak's scheme -- and as the Broncos went 4-2 over the next six games, including a 34-27 defeat to the Steelers in Pittsburgh -- it seemed that Manning's time with the Broncos, and perhaps as an NFL player, had run its course. He was embattled off the field as well: A report by Al Jazeera seemed to link him to HGH use, suggesting he obtained the substance (which is banned by the NFL) in the wake of his recovery from multiple neck surgeries in 2011; Manning strongly denied the allegations, telling ESPN he was "angry, furious...disgusted."
It was a tumultuous December for Manning, and there was no reason to suspect that January would be a whole lot better. And then, somewhat stunningly, in the midst of a turnover-laden performance by Osweiler that couldn't all be pinned on the quarterback, Kubiak turned back to Manning early in the second half of the season finale against the San Diego Chargers. According to several teammates, Manning's mere presence in the huddle gave the Broncos the kick in the butt they needed, provoking a 27-20, come-from-behind victory that clinched the conference's top seed. Three days later, Kubiak announced that Manning had regained his starting job, and for most of Sunday's game, it looked like a decision that would be second-guessed well into the offseason.
Part of that was due to Manning's counterpart: Though Ben Roethlisberger had suffered a separated throwing shoulder in the fourth quarter of the Steelers' stunning, 18-16 first-round victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, the ultra-tough quarterback bit his lip on Sunday and played like the future first-ballot Hall of Famer that he is, completing 24 of 37 passes for 339 yards without throwing an interception despite the absence of his star receiver (Antonio Brown, who suffered a concussion late in the victory over the Bengals) and star running back (Le'Veon Bell, lost for the season in a November defeat to the same team). Pittsburgh took the lead on Fitzgerald Toussaint's one-yard touchdown run with 1:22 left in the first quarter and held it for most of the game.
Forced to punt for the sixth time on the fourth-quarter drive that began with Manning's 34-yard completion to Sanders, the Broncos then allowed the Steelers to drive to their 34-yard-line with a one-point lead and 10 minutes remaining. On second-and-4, Roethlisberger handed the ball to Toussaint, who swept to his left before being hit by cornerback Bradley Roby at the 31. The ball popped free, and Broncos linebacker DeMarcus Ware -- one of the best pass rushers of his era -- pounced on the fumble at the 35, sending the crowd into a Mile High state of delirium.
The Broncos, to that point, had not held the ball for longer than 3:14 on any drive. What followed was a 13-play, 65-yard march that lasted 6 minutes, 52 seconds and produced their first touchdown of the day. Manning, who expertly audibled to running plays on numerous occasions throughout the game, was in full command. He attempted only three passes on the drive, completing two, but one was a biggie: On third-and-12 from his own 33, Manning threaded a pinpoint throw over the middle to third-string receiver Bennie Fowler, who caught it in stride and completed a 31-yard gain.
Finally, on third-and-goal from the 1, running back C.J. Anderson (15 carries, 72 yards) willed his way into the end zone, using a second-effort burst to push past defenders Brandon Boykin and Lawrence Timmons and giving the Broncos a lead they would not relinquish.
"Oh, I was getting in," Anderson said. "The dude (Boykin) grabbed my facemask, and I was like, I don't care."
Manning's pass to Thomas on the ensuing conversion made it 20-13 with three minutes remaining, and after Ware sacked Roethlisberger on fourth-and-5, the Broncos kept it on the ground and padded their lead on a 45-yard field goal by Brandon McManus, his fifth of the day. The Steelers closed the margin to seven on Chris Boswell's 47-yarder with 19 seconds remaining, but after his onside kick dribbled through a pair of Broncos, Anderson was there to smother it.
"Oh my god," Anderson said as he left the field. "It seemed like it was on the ground forever."
The same could have been said of Manning after his humbling flop early in the fourth quarter -- but he rose up and made a play, then won a game, and now his teammates believe that the magic is back, empirical evidence be damned.
"Did he look old tonight?" Anderson asked. "Ask yourself that. We dropped balls. He was whipping it through the wind. I thought he looked good."
(Personally, I thought he looked old. Then again, I was watching from a climate-controlled press box.)
Conversely, Brady, 38, still looks very much like a man at the top of his game. Yet the Broncos left their stadium Sunday convinced that Manning can lead them to an AFC Championship Game victory over the Pats for the second time in three seasons, or at least be good enough to do his part.
"He might not throw 50 touchdown passes or throw for 5,000 yards ever again, but one thing Peyton Manning never loses is that fourth quarter (expletive) he got," cornerback Aqib Talib said. "We got him that one turnover, and he came out and did his fourth quarter (expletive), and we won the game. There's only about three or four quarterbacks in the league that got that (expletive), and you'd best believe he's one of them."
Manning and the Broncos had enough on Sunday to extend their season -- and ensure that there will be at least one more fourth quarter in the brilliant quarterback's storied career. And when it was over, and I approached him at his locker, he had no illusions about the degree of difficulty that his current assignment carries.
"It was tough," Manning conceded.
So was he -- but he'll have to be even tougher on Sunday, when his fellow living legend comes to town.