At some point during Sunday's divisional playoff game between the Broncos and the Colts, I began to wonder if Denver's receivers were running bad routes. Or if they were being held. Or if Colorado's marijuana laws really were as lax as advertised.
Because there was no way all those terrible passes were Peyton Manning's fault.
But by the time Denver was in desperation mode in the fourth quarter – down by two scores with four minutes left – and Manning could not throw a pass further than five yards downfield, it became obvious that this was probably Manning's fault. And now it's apparent that maybe the last month of the season was too.
Manning looked as "Manning" as usual through 12 games, but then December brought an icy chill to his game that may finally signal a reason to retire to that Papa John's in the sky. Sure, the Broncos went 3-1 in the month, but they weren't humming along with the same effortless precision, thanks mostly to Manning, who posted a passer rating of 76.8 in the final four games, which ranked 26th in the league over that period of time. That's worse than Jay Cutler, Charlie Whitehurst and a guy who's six years younger and recently called it a career himself: Kyle Orton.
Maybe it was the torn quad he was playing on, or perhaps the mixture of cold weather and 17 years of NFL wear and tear finally caught up with him, but Manning didn't look right. And against the Colts – a team he lit up for 269 yards and three touchdowns in Week 2 – Manning looked even worse. He was 26-of-46 for 211 yards, just 4.6 yards per attempt, and just 6-of-21 on any pass further than five yards downfield. For as much as C.J. Anderson, Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas tried to will the Broncos to victory, it would have taken a massive mistake for the Colts to lose this game.
For 17 seasons, Manning has been the best football player on any field he steps onto, but on Sunday he didn't crack the top 10.
What's left to prove next year, when he will be 39 and may see unfamiliar faces on the coaching staff and in the locker room? Despite saying in December he had no plans to retire, Manning has pumped the brakes on those comments, saying "things have changed" since then.
And that was before Denver lost to Indianapolis at home, 24-13, bringing a promising season to a disappointing end and casting serious doubt on the future of a team built to win now.
After putting together one of the league's best rosters over the last few years, Denver GM John Elway must now figure out to do with impending free agents like Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Wes Welker, Terrance Knighton, Rahim Moore and Orlando Franklin. And then there's the matter of who will coach the team: On Monday, Denver "parted ways" with head coach John Fox, and it's been known for months that offensive coordinator Adam Gase was likely going to get his own head-coaching gig somewhere else next season. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio may be following him out of Denver, too.
In short, it's not so much a question of whether or not Manning should return to the Broncos, but a matter of knowing what Broncos team he's actually coming back to.
And again, Manning will be 39 next year, and the fates of NFL quarterbacks that have played past the age of 38 are mixed: Brett Favre had one of his best statistical seasons at 40, and Warren Moon threw for 33 TDs and more than 4,200 yards at 39, but Joe Montana and Steve Young both retired at 38, and so did Elway, Manning's boss and the ultimate "go out on top" QB.
If Manning has played his final NFL game, it's somewhat fitting that he went out against Andrew Luck, his heir apparent and the prodigy that pushed him out of Indianapolis. While the Colts' young leader didn't put up his usual big numbers on Sunday, he did provide a stark reminder of what Manning used to be able to do. Luck looked strong, confident and undoubtedly proved why he could one day have more career Pro Bowl nods and Super Bowl wins than Manning. His 15-yard touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks in the third quarter was such a laser that J.J. Abrams should CGI it into the new Star Wars film.
If Luck can avenge his team's pitiful performance against the Patriots in the playoffs last season, he'll finally receive the credit he deserves for willing an otherwise mediocre football team to the Super Bowl. It's the same thing we used to say about Manning, who was reduced to two-yard checkdowns and inaccurate downfield throws on Sunday. Consider the torch passed.
After Sunday's loss, Manning rightfully took the blame, and remained as stoic as ever about his future – "I need to process this game," he told reporters. Can he find the fortitude for one last run at a Super Bowl championship? Having become the NFL's all-time passing TD leader earlier this season, he's less than 3,000 yards away from setting a new mark in career passing yardage, too...does his legacy mean enough for him to lace 'em up for a final season? We know his will remains strong, but perhaps his body has finally betrayed him. What we saw from Manning on Sunday suggests his time has come. And though it's hard to say, maybe it's time for him to walk away from the game while he can still walk. After all, it's just a short stroll to Canton, Ohio.