This is the time of year when we write about Peyton Manning. It's been that way for almost two decades now. And for the last few years, we've written with uncertainty. Lots of words you already know about legacy and myth, plenty of passionate defense for old arguments we just can't stop having. He's our quarterback. He always will be.
A few years ago those words came out in fear. Fear that Manning had slipped away, the chance to watch him do something great gone, stolen by injury. And then, from that fear, rose the last three years in Denver: the greatest single-season offense of all-time, the most touchdown passes of all-time, one more win over Tom Brady, one more Super Bowl. And now, as these seasons often end, one more loss.
And there is a quiet fear now, different from the ones about his neck. Not worse, just different.
A few weeks ago I told my wife the same thing I've been saying to everyone else for years: we watch Manning any chance we get. You don't know how many of these are left. You don't know when the last memory will happen.
That was Monday Night Football, three days before Christmas in Cincinnati. Manning threw four interceptions, the last a pick six that created a memory for the other team.
Today, Indianapolis became the most recent team to beat Manning in the playoffs, in a game that had to be a strange experience for Colts fans. Andrew Luck, the choice their franchise made over the one who won them a Super Bowl, rides on to the AFC Championship Game. Manning was 26 of 46 for 211 yards, just 4.2 yards per attempt. Denver, and Manning, struggled.
We've been answering questions about Manning for years, playing defense since his junior year and still playing offense with the Downtown Athletic Club. But these questions are new, and I do not like them.
Did time finally win? Has Manning lost "it"? Is it over? Not because of injury, but because it just is?
If it is, Manning has nothing to answer for and no more to prove. He's got a Super Bowl ring and an SEC Championship ring. He's got many of the passing records on the game's highest level. He is in the conversation for the greatest quarterback of all-time, a conversation you can't win but can certainly enjoy.
I'm a Tennessee Titans fan. We're awful. There have been many years like this one, where Peyton Manning was the last thing standing I had to cheer for. I don't lament Manning missing opportunities to win more rings as much as I'd miss the opportunity just to watch him play.
And that's the real question: watch him play like what? Nobody wants Jordan with the Wizards, including Manning. We're a ways from there yet. But how close? Who knows.
There is no fanbase that loves Peyton Manning like this one. Not Indianapolis, who already had to let him go. And certainly not Denver, who inherited a fortune and is acting accordingly. In the immediate aftermath a raw fanbase would rather see Manning go than stay. That poll at SB Nation's Mile High Report is at 55-45 for Manning leaving Denver as I write this late Sunday night.
There's only support for Manning in Big Orange Country. He's our quarterback. There is no one coming up the depth chart to threaten that, no number of years that could change what he did and who he was here. Who he is here.
So if this is it? He'll get the same celebration from us than he'd get next year, or three years ago. Or if he is Jordan with the Wizards. There's nothing he can do on a football field to change the way Tennessee fans feel about him.
So I say this not so much as a Tennessee fan with an unconditional stance on Manning. I say it as a Boston Celtics fan, who watched a three year window get propped open for three more. Watched a team win in 2008 and lose in seven two years later in what was originally supposed to be the end of a short era. Watched old guys get the band back together three more times. And they never quite made it all the way back. But they came within a breath in 2012, one last unexpected run left in the tank. Another chance. Another moment.
This is the sunset of Manning's career, and eventually these questions will find their answers. The sun always sets. But just before it goes down, it can still be a beautiful thing to behold. It can still create a moment.
In sports, if you've got a good hand, you put your money on the table and play to win now. Denver still has a good hand. I hope their ace stays at the table.
Either way, he's our quarterback.