When Peyton Manning was drafted 18 years ago, he was such a flawless quarterback prospect that it was fair to wonder if his perfection would ultimately become the downfall of his legacy. Players like Tom Brady have absolutely nothing to lose as sixth rounders with old pictures more embarrassing than any senior portrait, but Manning wasn't just the top overall pick – he was probably the best overall pick since John Elway 15 years earlier.
Anything short of numerous Super Bowl championships would be seen as a failure, which seems ridiculous – until you realize just how often his 13 playoff losses are cited; People have consistently criticized Manning for "only winning one" and even then, doing it against Rex Grossman's Bears.
Well, for the fourth time in his career, Manning is headed to the Big Game. The twist is that even though this Denver Broncos team might be the best he has ever played on, Manning is not the one doing the leading so much as he is hoping to not fall off during the free ride.
After a thrilling 20-18 win over Brady's Patriots on Sunday, the Broncos will head back to the Super Bowl just two years after an embarrassing 43-8 blowout at the hands of Russell Wilson's Seahawks. It was probably after that loss that Elway – now the GM in Denver – realized that the greatest offense in NFL history meant nothing if it couldn't do a goddamn thing against a great defense.
If the Broncos lose Super Bowl 50, it won't be because they ran up against a better defense. Elway made sure of that.
In the months following their Super Bowl public shaming, Denver signed DeMarcus Ware to a $30 million deal at a time when most people thought the soon-to-be 32-year-old had little left in the tank. He also gave former Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib a six-year, $57 million deal that New England's NESN.com called one of the five worst contracts of 2014. The Broncos also signed safety T.J. Ward to a four-year deal and drafted cornerback Bradley Roby in the first round, completing their overhaul of the secondary.
A year later, Denver's defense improved to third in yards allowed but after Andrew Luck's Colts knocked them out of the playoffs, Elway had seen enough, replacing head coach John Fox with someone he had known as intimately as anyone in the NFL. Gary Kubiak was Elway's backup for nine seasons, then later his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach during the Broncos two Super Bowl wins in 1997 and 1998. Kubiak's history on defense was practically less than zero, so he brought in Wade Phillips, who has coached that side of the ball at every level dating back to 1970.
As Phillips switched Denver's base defensive alignment from the 4-3 that Jack Del Rio was using to his own brand of the 3-4, the differences, even the subtle changes, created a whole new baseline for how good the D can get in Denver.
For the first time in franchise history, the Broncos finished first in total defense, while also finishing first in yards per carry allowed and first in passing yards allowed. Over the last two years, Von Miller has recorded 25 sacks, Chris Harris has established himself as a shutdown corner, Ware has reemerged as an elite pass rusher, Talib has proven himself worthy of his contract and returned four interceptions for touchdowns, while legitimately excellent players like Derek Wolfe, Danny Trevathan, Brandon Marshall and Sylvester Williams get overshadowed amongst a forest of All-Pro and Pro Bowl talent.
And it's a good thing that everything on Denver's defense finally clicked under Kubiak and Phillips this season, because that's also when Manning's ability to be Peyton Manning on the football field came completely unhinged.
Despite playing in only 10 games, Manning's 17 interceptions ranked second in the NFL, just one fewer than Blake Bortles...though Bortles threw 26 more touchdowns than Manning. He threw fewer touchdowns than his backup, Brock Osweiler. He's thrown 29 interceptions over his last 22 games. To put it bluntly, he's not the same QB anymore, regardless of what his final numbers from the AFC championship game say.
Even Manning will admit that, these days, he wins games largely by staying out of the way of the defense as much as possible. He's along for the ride with one of the most talented teams he's ever been a part of, and when he faces Cam Newton's Panthers in Super Bowl 50, the hope is he's a part of the solution instead of the problem. That won't be easy, especially since Carolina's defense may be the only in the NFL that can stand next to Denver's.
In order for Manning to give himself a chance to ride off into the sunset and fulfill his promise of numerous Super Bowl championships, he and everyone else will have to admit one thing: These are not "Peyton Manning's Broncos."
This is the Broncos defense, featuring Peyton Manning.