He was a bargain.
Normally, Peyton Manning doesn’t fall short of the first round in fantasy football drafts. This year, he was overlooked as concerned managers ultimately couldn’t justify the risk.
Months earlier, the Denver Broncos justified the risk and many other teams attempted to do the same. While the Tennessee Titans put out desperate flares begging Manning to return to where he began, such as offering him unlimited pancakes at Shoney’s, John Elway quietly proved that the Broncos are a great quarterback away from their second AFC West title in a row and not far from a Super Bowl.
As Ben Roethlisberger threw a late fourth-quarter pick-six, the cameras briefly flashed to the sidelines and caught the same expressionless face that we’ve come to endear over the last 14 years.
It didn’t seem to matter how Dick LeBeau stationed his defense, with blitz or coverage; Manning found an opening. Drive after drive, regardless of personnel, Peyton did what Peyton does: be the greatest regular-season quarterback of all time.
He surgically moved the ball into Steelers’ territory by checking in and out of runs. He found open receivers, going 19-of-26 with two touchdowns and zero interceptions.
But what was truly great, what truly stood out, wasn’t Manning’s recovery from numerous neck surgeries that made some question his vulnerability, it was his mental recovery. Had you somehow completely missed last season and were completely unaware that he stood along the sidelines, dressed in Indianapolis sweats, you wouldn’t have been able to guess that he missed an entire season, and that he couldn’t feel his right arm for the better part of 200-some days.
It’s not as if confidence has ever been a factor in the Manning family, but to get shipped out of the only team you’ve ever played for, a franchise you put on the map, only to land in Denver where the Tebow zombies are still mauling the media, it takes a certain level of—how do I put this discreetly—balls to pick up right where you left off.
I don’t want to rush to judgment and crown the Broncos AFC West champs just yet. They’ve got a long way to go, and there’s no questioning that the Steelers defense was far from intact.
But it’s hard to ignore the insurmountable evidence that Peyton Manning is alive and well. Typically, with the Pittsburgh Steelers, we can rewind the game tape and point out a number of players that disrupted the offense. I challenge you to find that player during Sunday night’s game.
It’s also hard to ignore the butterfly effect that Manning has had on the league since the last Sunday night showdown.
Had Manning been able to play a full season last year, the Colts wouldn’t have been awarded the first draft pick of 2012. Had they not been awarded the first pick, the Washington Redskins would have drafted Andrew Luck. Had the Redskins drafted Luck, Robert Griffin III would have fallen to the Minnesota Vikings, or some other desperate franchise.
The results are almost obvious. The New Orleans Saints most likely wouldn’t have lost to the Redskins in a major upset. The Colts and Bears would have been featured on Sunday Night Football. And the Broncos and Steelers would be just another afternoon game that Ben Roethlisberger is expected to win.
But we’re not interested in that parallel universe. We’re interested in the one that just saw the Broncos get the better of a the team they beat not more than nine months ago in the playoffs, the same team they lost to in their last AFC Championship appearance.
I can speak from experience when I say that not many people come to Nashville, Tennessee looking for place to live and make it out of here without buying a condo. It seems as if Peyton somehow shook off the charm, looked downfield and found a connection that is only beginning to make sense.
Manning has made a damn good living off of making mediocre offensive lines look good and good receivers look great. It’s scary to think of what compounding that production with a better defense than he’s ever had does for teams around the league.
The AFC West has officially been put on notice.