Manning turned in one of the finest performances of his career in the AFC Championship Game victory over the New England Patriots.
With the pressure on Manning to lead the Broncos to the Super Bowl by defeating his long-time rivals, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, Peyton threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns while completing 32-of-43 passes.
There was never a point during the game where the Broncos trailed—they had full control of a game that was supposed to be competitive from beginning to end.
The chatter leading into the game was over Manning's legacy. Many pondered if Manning's legacy would forever be damaged if the Broncos had lost to New England. Considering it would have been Peyton's third loss in four tries in the postseason versus the Brady/Belichick-led Patriots, the media would have had a field day had the Patriots been able to upend the Broncos in Mile High.
Peyton put that talk to rest—for now.
Surprisingly, since the Broncos and Seattle Seahawks won their conference championship games, there has been very little talk of Manning's legacy.
Most of the chatter and focus has been on the weather for the game, Richard Sherman's postgame outburst following the Seahawks' victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, and how the Broncos-Seahawks match up in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Maybe the media has run out of material pertaining to Manning's lack of success in the postseason following a full week of such coverage leading into the AFC Championship Game. Maybe the Broncos' victory—punctuated by a near-perfect performance by Manning—just simply shut those detractors up.
Point is, Manning's track record in the postseason hasn't been as much of a focus over the past few days as it has been throughout his entire career.
B/R's own Christopher Hansen wrote a piece titled "No Matter What Happens in Super Bowl, Peyton Manning Has Answered Doubters." Hansen stresses the point that regardless of whether Manning wins in the Super Bowl or not, and regardless of whether he has a good performance or not, Manning's legacy is essentially set, and people should no longer doubt his ability to perform in any situation.
Hansen states the following relating to Manning's potential performance in Super Bowl XLVIII:
While some may argue that Manning needs to win another Super Bowl to quiet his critics, even a terrible performance isn’t going to change the numbers drastically. He is widely regarded as the best regular-season quarterback of all time, and his performance in the postseason is now starting to mirror that dominance.
This is where Hansen is wrong—the narrative of "Manning chokes in big games" and "Manning can't win the big one" will only be reopened if the Broncos lose in the Super Bowl—especially if Manning has an underwhelming performance.
All Manning's excellent performance against the Patriots ensured is that such chatter will be postponed—until the Broncos or Manning falters again, after which the media will feast on Manning like sharks.
The facts are this: Manning is not playing to be one of the best of all time. His legacy in that regard is set.
Manning is playing to be the best of all time.
The four-time MVP (and soon-to-be five-time MVP) has set the standard so high, that the only way for him to match his regular season performance and personal accolades is by winning another Lombardi Trophy—whether that's a fair standard or not.
We have become so accustomed to Manning dominating his opposition in the regular season, so accustomed to him breaking records and winning awards on an annual basis, that the only direction for a player of such caliber is to go down, not up.
If Manning loses in Super Bowl XLVIII, his legacy will take a dent.
The 2013 season in which Peyton broke the passing touchdown and yardage records, and helped lead the Broncos offense to the greatest single season of any offense in NFL history will forever be known as the 'greatest regular season by a quarterback' rather than the 'greatest season period, by a quarterback.'
If Manning wins in Super Bowl XLVIII, he will be accepted as the best of all time—a precedent that shouldn't even have to take place in order to rate Manning as an individual player.
But that is the reality we live in. Individual players in team sports are judged by the amount of championships they have, not by the individual statistics they accumulate, no matter how monumental they might be.
LeBron James wasn't accepted as the best in his sport until he won his first championship in 2012. Although he was the best player in the game for several years before he won his first NBA title, the majority of people weren't willing to accept such a claim until he solidified himself by winning a championship.
Although Peyton has won a Lombardi Trophy, he did it by less-than-impressive means. During the 2006-07 postseason, Manning threw for three touchdowns and seven interceptions en route to winning his first, and only, Lombardi Trophy.
Because his postseason stats weren't reflective of his regular season dominance, and because it's only one Super Bowl title, people will not accept Manning as the best of all time unless he wins this year.
As unfair as it may be, the public holds Manning to the highest standard of excellence because Manning has achieved the highest standard of excellence throughout his NFL career in the regular season. Being 11-11 in the postseason with just one championship isn't enough.
Although Manning has excelled in his last two postseason games prior to leading the Broncos to the Super Bowl, it will all be for naught if the Broncos fall to the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII.
And the narrative of, "Manning can't win the big one," will be revived for yet another year.
Whether that's fair, or not.