I could not help the mental association.
I watched Peyton Manning standing on the sideline with his helmet on and a dejected expression on his face as the Baltimore offense made its way down the field for what would be the game-tying touchdown.
There is one other moment in Peyton Manning’s career in which I saw that same expression: when Jim Caldwell gave up on pursuing the perfect season in favor of resting Manning for the playoff run. As Caldwell took the reigns from Manning, in what could have been an historic season, it is hard to argue that John Fox did not also take the reigns from Manning, to a certain extent, with the game on the line.
The drive that exemplifies this was Denver’s last drive, with 3:12 left in the game. At this point, Baltimore still had two timeouts and Denver was down to using their third and fourth-string running backs, as Willis McGahee was still a week away from being eligible to play and Knowshon Moreno had left the game earlier due to injury.
During this drive, the Broncos ran five plays, not one of which gave Peyton the opportunity to throw the ball. I understand that football is a violent chess match and that Fox was trying to protect his lead, but why would you not trust the man who got you to that point in the playoffs to begin with?
In the interest of full discretion, I do acknowledge that I am a Peyton Manning fan. I have no interest in the Colts or Broncos, but the manner in which he plays the game and carries himself off the field garners a lot of respect. It is for that reason that I support him and want to see him reach his potential, which is why these two instances where coaches took the ball out of his hands frustrate me so.
Who is most to blame for Denver's loss?
I watched the remainder of the games this past weekend, trying to decide who to support for the remainder of the playoffs. In the last game on the weekend’s slate, I saw Tom Brady absolutely light up the Houston Texans defense and had to acknowledge the play calling as the antithesis of what I saw in the Denver-Baltimore game. At no point did Bill Belichick take the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands. And why should he? He is, after all, Tom Brady.
I just have to wonder why Peyton is not afforded the same level of trust.
After all, Peyton had been having a great game up to that point. He had thrown three touchdown passes that could not have been handed to the receivers in a better spot, and was methodical in his success against the Baltimore defense...when he was given the chance.
What is most bothersome is that Manning is receiving an inordinate amount of blame for Denver’s loss. People are focusing on his final throw of the game, when he threw a pass across his body into the chest of a Baltimore Raven. During the course of the game, he had three turnovers: that interception, another interception that is as much the fault of the prospective receiver and a fumble that was called a little differently for Tom Brady a few years ago.
Ultimately, Peyton Manning got them there and he should have been the one to decide whether they won or lost. Over the past few days, analysts have been lumping this in with the narrative that Peyton cannot get it done in the postseason, as if the loss was his fault. That is a facile argument and completely ignores the overcautious play calling of Fox and the inexplicably bad play of Denver’s secondary.
Again, I am a Peyton fan, so my opinion has to be taken with a grain of salt. I do sit here today wondering what could have been had the Broncos been more aggressive toward the end of the game. If this Denver team had advanced, we would be heavily anticipating another classic Manning-Brady showdown. The stories about Peyton chasing his second ring to tie his brother would bountiful.
In the end, what happened happened and you have to give Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Torrey Smith a lot of credit for working to keep their team in the game and ultimately move on in the playoffs. But I do hope that next season, when the season is on the line, the Denver coaching staff will put the game on the capable shoulders of one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game.