Let's just blast out of the gates with it: Peyton Manning is a shell of the quarterback he used to be.
He's an old 39. A piano-on-the-back 39. A noodle-armed 39. A shaky 39. If he keeps playing long enough – even one more season, which would be his 19th in the NFL – he just might become the worst starting quarterback in the game. So he's got that going for him…which can't be all that nice.
But here's what else Manning is: 60 minutes from his fourth Super Bowl. How nice must that be?
Maybe you didn't care to see any more of Manning heading into the Denver Broncos' 23-16 AFC divisional playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. We certainly understand. Exciting to watch, he is not. A gladiator of the kind we wet ourselves over from September into February, he is not. A broken record of "Omahas!" he most certainly is.
Yet – outside of Steelers fans, of course – we're all mighty glad to see him now, aren't we?
You know why. We all do. Thank you, football gods, for one more – one final? – installment of Manning vs. Brady.
We'll get Tom Brady and the NFL's defending-champion New England Patriots at Denver in Sunday's AFC title game, and we'll like it so very much.
The drama enveloping that matchup already is ridiculously high, and it will be redoubled by the day during the week. By kickoff, many of us will find our opinions clouded on the singular question of Manning's and the 38-year-old Brady's time: Which of these guys is better? Or, if you prefer: Whose bust should be carved first into the Mount Rushmore of quarterbacks?
For some, the answer remains simple: It's Brady's. He has four Super Bowl rings, to Manning's one. He's 11-5 head-to-head against Manning. Persuasive stuff, no doubt.
Yet Manning is the NFL's career leader in passing yards, passing touchdowns and so many other things; the 55 game-winning drives he's led in the fourth quarter or overtime were another record, until Manning pushed it to 56 against the Steelers. And the head-to-head playoff record is 2-2, with Manning winning the past two meetings, each for a spot in the Super Bowl.
Hard-to-believe but true: Brady hasn't beaten Manning in a playoff game since the 2004 season. Let that one marinate for a moment.
There is zero question Brady has more giddy-up to his game than Manning at this point. Simply: Brady is better. Hell, much better. Perhaps that's why the Patriots opened as three-point favorites. That spread hardly feels wrong.
But there are reasons to suspect Manning has the better team around him. One is, naturally, the Broncos' No. 1 seed in the AFC, earned in part because of a 30-24 overtime victory over New England in Week 12 when Manning was out with a foot injury and future (???) Denver starter Brock Osweiler was under center. Another – the biggest one – is the Broncos' NFL-best defense.
This is a star-laden Denver team, with Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware dialed up to hound Brady in the pass rush and a secondary that rivals Seattle's capable of making him look human. Brady has stud targets like Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, but Manning has a glittering pair of wideouts in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.
Manning was sneaky-good against the Steelers, but he was quick to deflect a question put to him about leading his team to the next round.
"I think our defense is guiding us," he said. "Let's make that clear. They've been great all season…I'm honored to be a part of it."
And yet – did we mention this already? – Manning really was good against Pittsburgh. For one thing, he threw for 222 yards without being intercepted, a big deal for a guy who tied for the regular-season league lead with 17 picks despite playing in only 10 games. But there also were subtler signs that he has his own game dialing up.
On the opening play of the second quarter, there was a gorgeously thrown deep ball to Thomas that, though it fell incomplete, noodled not one bit. Later in the quarter, Manning fit a third-down pea to Thomas in between two defenders for a 10-yard gain. In the third quarter, he stepped into a throw at his own 15-yard line and found Sanders on an out route with a strike to the 39. It was a pass he wouldn't have completed, and that probably would've been intercepted, two months ago.
The old man's finest moment came in the fourth quarter when he slid to the turf to avoid the rush, popped up and fired to Sanders for a 34-yard catch-and-run. It wasn't magical, but it was significant.
Come to think of it, forget that stupid earlier line about Manning becoming the worst starting quarterback in the game. That's heresy. That's impossible.
Manning is a shell of the player he once was, but he's 60 minutes from another Super Bowl. If he goes out like that – in the big game, at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California – an epic final chapter, win or lose, will have been written.
At least we think it would be the final chapter. It probably should be. But at this point, who are we to doubt this dude?