Thousands of words have appeared in this space about our quarterback, often in January at the end of something. When there was a chance it was over in Indianapolis, he didn't owe us anything more. When Denver was engulfed by Seattle's defense two seasons ago, we rose to his defense because that's what we do after a lifetime of Floridas and Woodsons. And last year, when his middle-aging body gave out against the Colts in the playoffs and many in Denver's fan base wondered if it was time to move on, we wrote this:
And then Kubiak and questions followed. One week they were 7-0. Two weeks later Peyton got the all-time yardage record just before throwing four interceptions, and then Brock Osweiler took over. And then for six weeks, it seemed like that might be it. And even that, for us, would have been more than enough.
Peyton Manning did more than enough for Tennessee twenty years ago. You know all the stories; they still live in us, brought back in unforeseen moments like when Manning breaks out another bootleg and looks almost as spry two months from 40 as he did at 19. That night in Birmingham was more than half of his life ago, but just getting to still see him out there makes it feel like yesterday in ways it just won't when he's wearing a suit and tie.
And sure, no one, probably least of all Peyton Manning, wants to just see him out there throwing four interceptions and getting benched. The game will always tell you when it's time to go. If that night against Kansas City was it, so be it. Even if he got relatively healthy, which he did, maybe it was too late.
And then they put him in against San Diego in Week 17. Not ceremonially, not in a blowout, and not without meaning: Denver needed home field advantage. The Sheriff comes off the bench in the third quarter to get them home. And for the first time since, I don't know, his freshman year? You were nervous for him. Unsure. Not wanting it to go badly.
That's been a great and unexpected gift in these already amazing last four weeks, which will now gloriously stretch to six. We're so used to defending Manning when he didn't meet some perceived expectation or a ceiling set higher than anyone else's. We forgot what it was like to cheer for him as the underdog: roof open, odds stacked, let's see what he's got and win or lose he's our guy. You know, plus all that turning 40 stuff.
The last time watching Manning felt like this was the second half of the AFC Championship Game following the 2006 season. It's still my favorite NFL game, even as a Titans fan. Nine years ago I listened to the first half in my car while driving to Michigan through a snowstorm, then tried to avoid eviction from a Grand Rapids hotel room in the final thirty minutes. That night was so good the Super Bowl that came next felt like the epilogue. Down 21-3 on a pick six, Manning led the Colts back for a 38-34 victory over Tom Brady and the Patriots to get to his first Super Bowl. It was a much better game played by much younger men against much weaker defenses. But the wanting so badly for him to accomplish something that seemed so unlikely? That felt familiar and warm and suffocating today.
It would have been enough before San Diego a month ago, but Manning helped the Broncos put 20 points on the board in the second half and earn home field advantage. If that was one final post script, great. But then Pittsburgh fumbled away a 13-12 lead, and Manning helped the Broncos get downfield and into the end zone to secure the win. In neither game did he throw a touchdown (or an interception), but the Broncos won. That was enough.
And then a week of Brady and numbers like 11-5. And almost everyone (including me) picking the Patriots to win, and having to think about Brady and Belichick being the ones to stop the music. And even that, as little fun as it would have been, would have still been enough. He's our quarterback.
And then in the first half today, our quarterback turned back the clock.
There was a level of satisfaction in a first half that featured two Manning touchdowns on beautifully thrown balls with two Brady interceptions that is rare in sports. This whole thing is rare. Manning is rare. Already was, not just for being in the conversation for the greatest of all-time, but to us for being a player who can rally a college fan base to his cause almost two decades after his final snap in our orange. All of that, with the last month piled on top of it. And when he came out firing today...I'll smile about that for a while, thank you very much.
The Patriots didn't go away, and if this was a Denver Broncos blog I'd be writing about the defense too. They earned every letter.
But as this is a Tennessee Volunteers blog, I'm just going to keep writing about Manning. Every chance I get. And thanks to his arm early and his teammates throughout, we get one more day.
I tend to think of Tom Brady the way I think of Steve Spurrier: undeniably great, and an incredible villain to our cause. Both win the overall numbers game against Manning and Tennessee. But if this was, in fact, the last round of Brady/Manning, the good guys once again got the last word. It was so twice for the Vols and Spurrier, at Florida and at South Carolina. And today Peyton Manning went to 3-1 on the biggest stage against Tom Brady, and the last word on their rivalry is his if he wants it.
So now we go one more day. We all have assumptions after that, but they will wait. Legacy secured, even among a Denver fan base that has now rented him long enough to own. We weren't sure we'd get another down, and now we get another Super Bowl.
For Tennessee fans, what's been true for twenty years has never felt more real: Peyton Manning gave his all for Tennessee long ago. Everything else has been a gift. And today felt like Christmas morning.
One more day. Go get 'em, Sheriff.