Peyton Manning makes history. Sweet, gorgeous history. We all take a bow.
He passed Tom Brady for the most touchdown passes in a season—a record set just six years ago—with 51. Incredible. Better than incredible. He's like a human Madden. Look up "video game" in the dictionary and there's a picture of Manning, football in one hand, record book in the other, his teeth marks all over it.
It's a record that will stand for years. Like, two. Because in today's NFL, these records have the shelf life of skim milk.
This doesn't mean Manning does not possess extreme talent. He does. This doesn't mean he isn't eternal. He is. Fifty-one touchdowns is 51 freaking touchdowns. Sources say that's a lot. And the congratulations came rolling in. "Congrats to my friend, Peyton Manning," tweeted Barry Sanders. When Barry Sanders offers his congratulations, it's a big deal. The president will call next from Air Force One.
Manning is the MVP this season. No one comes close.
In fact, this season for Manning has been an orgasm of numbers, statistical achievements and statistical, numbery, achievery thingies. He has over 5,000 passing yards and the 51 touchdowns, and it seems like his entire receiving corps caught 400 touchdowns each. The only thing missing was a giant clock hovering over Times Square showing Manning's numbers, like the debt clock.
Yet, here's the rub.
If he doesn't win a Super Bowl, it will all mean little. Very little. Almost nothing.
If he's eliminated early in the playoffs, like last season, his NFL epitaph will read like this:
"Here lies Manning's NFL career. One of the best at generating statistics. One of the worst at winning big."
Those numbers will come with an asterisk.
If you don't believe Manning's achievement puts more pressure on him to win the Super Bowl, you're a fool. Of course it does.
Manning will have more pressure on him than ever before, and the truth is, he hasn't always handled pressure so well.
The record now becomes almost a referendum on Manning's postseason life. If his statistical greatness, once again, doesn't translate into postseason buoyancy, Manning will again be seen as a regular-season statistical savant who shrinks in the playoffs.
"When you break records," said former safety Rodney Harrison on NBC, "it's a great achievement. But I think it puts even more pressure on you to win a Super Bowl."
I've been critical of Manning's data-driven career, then I wasn't, and now I'm cautious again. After the game, as seen in the postgame locker room at DenverBroncos.com, Manning said all the right things. But the Broncos were very celebratory. Part of this is understandable, but this has been the problem at times in Manning's career. A celebration of data instead of a celebration of Super Bowl wins.
Manning will likely once again get home-field advantage in the playoffs, and once again everyone will be watching to see how he plays with a lead. Manning has massive weaponry, a good head coach and probably home field. There will be no excuses. None.
I covered Brady extensively when he set the previous TD record, 50, and I honestly believe he didn't give a s--- about it. Oh, sure, there was a part of Brady that understood the historical value of what he had accomplished, but mostly, he didn't give a s---. The Patriots scored that many because Bill Belichick wanted to intimidate opponents. All Brady wanted to do was win games, and he knew no one could cover Randy Moss and Wes Welker.
Manning, to me, enjoys the numerical success a great deal. Too much, I think. While his numeric success is staggering, the numbers that continue to stick more than any other are these: He's gone without a playoff win in eight of his 12 postseason appearances; he owns a 9-11 career playoff record.
In the divisional loss last year to the Ravens, he threw two interceptions, including a pick-six. He fell to 1-4 in divisional games at home. That season, like this one, was numerically explosive. The Broncos were 9.5-point favorites.
Don't tell me his big-game gagging is ancient history, either. The Ravens playoff loss came last season, and what happened to Manning against New England this season was extremely Heimlich-y.
So here we are again. We will marvel at his numbers—and they should be seen as wondrous. Take a bow, Peyton.
The problem for Manning remains: if the data become defining.
Instead of the winning.