As the Denver-Baltimore game went from close to surreal in the frigid mile high air, I sensed things slipping away for the home team. Watching both side trade blows and hold, I commented to friend that if the Broncos haven't knocked the visitors out by now, they never will.
Then Peyton Manning did what Denver brought him in to do in the wake of Tim Tebow's notable departure: win and move on to the AFC championship game. Manning took the wheel and drove Denver 88 yards for a touchdown. Baltimore responded by chewing up four minutes on the clock before turning the ball over on downs. Denver got the ball back and punted after two more minutes. At this point there's 1:09 left in the game and the Ravens need to go 77 yards.
And then it happened: on the third play, Joe Flacco completes a bomb to Jacoby Jones over a flailing Rahim Moore. Jones takes it to the house and the score is tied with about 30 seconds left. The game drifted into two overtimes before Baltimore finally put Denver down for good with a field goal kick.
I wonder how Denver fans, John Elway and head coach John Fox feel about this after enduring one of the most absurd football seasons ever last year with Tebow at the helm. This was the game the Broncos were supposed to win ever since running Tebow out of town on a rail and courting Peyton Manning.
And yet, we are left with the unbelievable reality that Tim Tebow won more playoff games (one) with this team than Manning—one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.
Will Denver win a Super Bowl with Manning?
What are we to make of that? Tebow is so bad that this year he was the third-string quarterback on the Jets—a venerable traveling circus team—behind Mark Sanchez, the worst quarterback in the NFL. Tebow is so bad even the new general manager of his hometown Jacksonville flatly dismissed any possibility of him playing for the Jaguars. This is coming from a guy overseeing a team that won two games and can't even fill its stadium. In his professional opinion, he thinks Tebow would make things in Jacksonville worse.
Tebow was the Jonah the Broncos ceremoniously traded in favor of the much more palpable and certainly more capable Manning. And yet after so much fanfare, Manning ends the Broncos season by throwing an interception in double overtime, setting up Baltimore's game winning-field goal.
I'm not saying by any stretch that Manning isn't great, but you have to find this ending pretty unbelievable, a year after Tebow inexplicably led the Broncos to a playoff win against the Steelers. A year ago, had you told Denver they were going to send Tebow to the Jets—an insidious move that would make the ancient Trojans happy—while replacing him with Manning who would play at MVP form, their fans would at least be entitled a playoff win out of that karmic exchange.
How does a stats-based, mechanized age reconcile such a thing? Can it really just be blamed on poor weather in Denver?
No matter how it settles, the real loser in all of this is Manning. Denver's signing of him was the storyline of the 2012 season—his comeback after missing all of 2011 due to neck surgery was the event.
John Elway undoubtedly had his sights on a Broncos championship after signing the 36-year-old quarterback. Manning's Week 1 win over the Steelers—a game where he threw for 245 yards and two touchdowns—validated the move. 13 wins later, with the No. 1 playoff seed, the entire country was on-board with the idea that Denver would knock New England out in the AFC Championship game and play for a championship.
By the way, how great would it have been to watch the Manning brothers stop Tom Brady two years in a row? We've had little brother Eli avenging all of those big brother defeats at the hands of Tom Terrific by vanquishing him in two Super Bowls. Now with Eli out of the playoffs Peyton should have returned the favor.
It was the perfect "everybody wins" scenario for NFL fans: Mr. Professional Manning eliminates any memory of Denver's insane Tebow draft pick, while ridding the country of inane Ray Lewis farewell tour stories, before beating the Patriots on behalf of a thankful nation.
But no. Rahim Moore, the weather gods, John Fox and the fervent prayers of dispersed Tebow fans, would have none of it. Ray Lewis was the one giving the postgame interview in tears while preaching on.
New England and Tom Brady, are still playing after a three touchdown, 344-yard showing by their villainously perfect quarterback. Somewhere, in the darkness, the Tebow movement grows. It's all too much.
Brady's post season record is now 17-6. Manning is now 9-11. If Brady beats Lewis next week he will be playing in his sixth Super Bowl. Everyone, from PTI to Huffington Post is calling the Brady-Manning prize fight over.
Fans of Manning, of which I am one, are now forced to root for Lewis next week, or, barring that, whichever NFC team goes to the Super Bowl. Within the next few years, we need Manning to coax Terrell Davis out of retirement while conjuring up some John Elway magic. We need two more Super Bowls out of you, Manning, and if that means you have to helicopter into the end zone, at the risk of your body to get it done, so be it.
Two more Super Bowls Manning, and then call it a career. But right now my favorite story line is over. The only one I see worth cheering for is Colin Kaepernick and his coach Jim Harbaugh (he of the goofy Visa commercials). Alright. I think we're good.