Peyton Manning can’t win.
Even when he wins.
Even when his team is perfect, he’s forever forewarned about his epic dip in production. Has the leader of a 6-0 team ever been so tormented after being so revered for 15 years? To hear the pundits ditch their plaudits and deliver their weekly eulogies, you’d think Peyton Manning were Tim Tebow — a flash in the pan, a one-hit cultural wonder who rode an ephemeral wave of good luck and great defense.
All those years he singularly carried the Colts deep into January, only to fall to the twin-wizards of Brady and Belichick, he was seen as a failure, the choke artist who forever lost to the Florida Gators, despite the disparity in talent.
Nope. Every time Manning heaves a wobbling ball down the field to have it tipped or picked or swatted away, we solemnly swear that we’ve seen the last of his legendary form. Nothing gets fans more frothing than an icon in repose. As ardently as we celebrate an athlete’s peak, we can’t wait for his plunge.
Indeed, Manning is plunging to career lows in touchdowns, completion percentage and yards, while soaring to career highs in interceptions.
And, if the media and masses weren’t haunting him enough this Halloween, he’s got the Terminator coming to town. If Manning is deep into the back-nine of his career, he’s facing the QB equivalent of a young Jack Nicklaus.
Aaron Rodgers is a clear, corporeal reminder of what Peyton once was. With all due respect to Boston and Tom Brady, Rodgers is the preeminent QB in the NFL, and has been for a few years. Despite throwing his first INT at Lambeau Field since the Civil War, Rodgers is a savant at his apex, playing QB with a breathtaking alertness and alacrity. Few, if any, quarterbacks in NFL history ever had Rodgers’ confluence of timing, talent and temerity.
His Packers are 6-0. Peyton’s Broncos are 6-0. If you play into the cliche, Rodgers is the irresistible arm facing Denver’s immovable defense. No team can rush the passer like the Broncos, particularly at home, where the thin air and rare speed on the edges has made for many a miserable night for the opposing QB.
But if anyone can duck the rush, bark the perfect audible or use a nanosecond release to burn the Broncos, it’s Rodgers, whom backup QB Scott Tolzein compared to Michael Jordan in his prime.
Hyperbole? Maybe. Bob Knight branded Jordan the greatest player in the history of team sports. It’s all subjective, of course, but no one doubts the subject du jour — two undefeated teams with epic aspirations and two iconic quarterbacks heading in different directions.
Maybe Manning has a few more divine days left in his right arm. After several neck surgeries, endless blasts from defensive linemen, hundreds of face-down refrains, a mouthful of grass wedged into his face mask, Manning has the physical hallmarks of a boxer a bit past his prime.
He’s got the classic fighter’s profile. His nose flattened by forearms, his knees wrapped and strapped like a geriatric, the happy feet and anxious eyes of someone knocked out a dozen times, yet the content countenance of someone who has been to the mountaintop, whose entries into the archives will never be repeated.
No matter what happens on Sunday, no one will ever throw 540 touchdowns, throw for 4,000 yards in 13 separate seasons or throw over 25 TDs in 15 straight seasons. Just two years ago, Manning turned the record book into his personal photo album. In 2013, he threw for 5,477 yards and 55 TDs, tossed seven TDs in one game and averaged 342.31 yards per game — all NFL records.
But to hear all the roundtables and fireside musings, Manning is a man in decay, his defense doubling as pallbearers to his NFL funeral, carrying him to Canton. Peyton Manning is forever flawed. Even when his record is flawless.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.