I’m not going to lie: Every time the ball flutters out of Peyton Manning’s hands these days, I worry that it will be the last pass he ever throws. He is 39 years old, and he never really looked like a football player in the first place, but that’s doubly true now as he labors his way through what likely has to be the final season of his career, unless his pathological need for this sport runs far deeper than any of us can fathom.
Manning is more than a year older than Y.A. Tittle was in that famous photo of a quarterback in bloody repose; his body is a mess, and he cannot feel the fingertips of his right hand. There is something almost perverse about his insistence on continuing to play at this point; he is smart enough and charming enough and successful enough that you might argue pro football needs him at this point more than he could ever need pro football. And yet on he goes, utilizing his intellect to hurl those wounded-bird throws to places where the defense cannot defend them, riding the momentum provided by one of the best defensive units he’s ever had on his side during his career.
What the Broncos did to Green Bay Sunday night, defeating the Packers decisively and thoroughly by a score of 29-10, was surprising in many ways. Both these teams came in at 6-0, but the Broncos were a home underdog for good reasons, and the first of those reasons was that nobody really believed Manning could hold it together against a team as good as the Packers. All season long, as Denver kept winning games, Manning had been accused of riding his defense; he was a presumed shell of a quarterback, hanging on for one last chance to win a second Super Bowl. It feels wrong to glamorize Manning as some kind of steely warrior, because he was never that quarterback in the first place; in nearly every way, he was the exact opposite, the first nerd quarterback, his body concave and angled all weird. But that’s why the story of the 2015 Denver Broncos became an awkward one, even as they kept winning: Because there’s something a little discomfiting about watching a man like this suffer to endure.
The second reason the Broncos were a home underdog? Well, that would be Aaron Rodgers, who is everything Manning was in his prime, a brilliant quarterback with pinpoint accuracy who seems capable of carrying his team through virtually any perilous scenario. And yet on Sunday night, everything turned in on itself. Rodgers could do nothing. The Broncos held him to 77 yards passing, blanketing receivers downfield and forcing Rodgers to check down on his throws time and again.
And Manning? Well, OK, let’s not get carried away here and say that this was vintage Peyton, but let us also say that there are not a lot of quarterbacks whose bodies are as ravaged as Manning’s who would be capable of putting up 340 yards passing against the Packers.
That’s the thing with the Broncos: They appear to have constructed a team that doesn’t need Manning to be his vintage self, or even the self that led Denver to the Super Bowl a couple of years back. They’ve begun to establish a running game, and they can limit their opponents in ways that many of Manning’s Colts teams never could; what they need, amid this formula, is a quarterback who doesn’t make costly mistakes, and there is perhaps no quarterback who has done that more effectively over the course of a long career than Manning.
So I guess the only question now is whether he can hold himself together. The only question is whether Manning can avoid the hit that turns him into Y.A. Tittle; the only question is whether he can keep getting up every Sunday, time and again. The Broncos are 7-0 after last night, which means they’re not even halfway through the regular season; they’ll still have to work their way past the don’t-give-a-fuck New England Patriots in the AFC, and even if they do that, they may have to once again stymie Aaron Rodgers, which, you know, fool me once can’t get fooled again.
“I don’t look at this as an ‘I told you so’ moment, because I don’t really listen to you all in the first place,” Manning said Sunday night, and I’m not sure if I believe him, but I guess that’s not that point. I guess the point is that any doubts we have about Peyton Manning have nothing to do with his ability to prove us wrong; any doubts we have about Peyton Manning have more to do with our fear that his body won’t let him prove us wrong.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb