Lost among the fanfare in Denver's Super Bowl berth is the fan base's complex relationship with the man who got them there. Six weeks ago, the average Broncos fan had already buried Peyton Manning and rushed through the five stages of grief.
It was easy to move on because of Brock Osweiler's inspired play, particularly when the long-time backup to Manning threw an overtime touchdown against the very team the Broncos beat in the AFC Championship. After that win, the Broncos were declared "Osweiler's Team." And Manning, whose resting sad face made him look even down-and-out, disappeared into the shadows.
Manning did not have a great season. We knew about the lack of feeling in his fingertips, we saw the decreased velocity on his throws, and we watched the team run to a 7-0 start thanks, in large part, to a defense that buoyed a sub-par offense.
In Manning's last regular-season start, against Kansas City, he managed two rare feats: Setting the all-time record for career passing yards, and then throwing his fourth pick of the day. The performance was bad enough that Denver coach Gary Kubiak pulled him for Osweiler, and later apologized for putting Manning in that position in the first place.
They said his poor day was the result of a foot injury, one that had hampered him for weeks. It seemed convenient at the time, a way for the fallen great to save face amid his own decline.
Fast-forward to the AFC Championship Game, where Manning did just enough to lead the team to a 20-18 victory. Yes, he was once again buoyed by an incredible defensive performance, and yes, the opponent's missed extra-point attempt did create a decisive advantage in the game. And Manning's game did not produce a stunning line: 17-for-32, just 176 yards, and two touchdowns against zero interceptions. On the surface, his play appears, once again, serviceable but mediocre.
That review overlooks the savvy by which Manning put that line together. No, this was not 2004 Peyton Manning. Even after two playoff wins, that much is clear. But at 39, as the oldest quarterback to ever start a Super Bowl, that line represents something just as valuable: A wisdom in his approach to the game.
Bodies break down. But Manning's mind has always been one of his greatest assets. His ability to read a defense and make adjustments on the line is unlike any other NFL quarterback. And where is arm strength has declined, his mind is as able as ever to read a situation and make adjustments. Since returning from his prolonged absence -- an absence some thought would ease gracefully into retirement -- one thing is clear: Manning has called an audible on his career, and he's changed his playing style to complement a stout Broncos defense and, more than anything, protect the ball.
This isn't Manning the Conqueror, but it's Manning the Game Manager. And, as he showed Sunday, the latter version is still lethal.
More than two months after his plantar fasciitis problems hit a breaking point, we can look back and see things with a little more clarity. Reality is slightly more complex than people want to make it. His physical skills have diminished some, but the claims of foot troubles were legitimate. Instead of one or the other, his mid-season struggles were likely a combination of the two.
But we didn't care about that. Eager to watch our heroes fall, we buried him early. And now he's back.
To be fair, we already did the same thing to Tom Brady. In 2014, after a rough start in his first four games, experts wondered loudly if this was it for Brady -- if he'd showed up to training camp a clearly eroded version of himself, and if the Patriots dynasty was over.
People even suggested -- in seriousness -- that Brady be benched in favor of Jimmy Garoppolo. Jimmy Garoppolo!
Brady was buried, and then he underwent a resurgence. What happened in those first four games? Several small problems coming to a head, coupled with a slow start to the season that the Patriots have suffered more than once. It didn't hurt them at all; they won the Super Bowl that year.
On Sunday, none of that mattered. Brady spent more time on his back than people shopping for mattresses. He looked hopeless at times, even though he brought the team within a two-point conversion of sending the game to overtime. The reality, of course, is that the game was largely determined by factors neither quarterback couldn't control: Eroding offensive lines, differences in defensive play, and the coin flip of being the team that misses and extra point.
Objectively, Manning is closer to the end than Brady. He's older, and his body has gone through more. It's conceivable he'll call it quits after Super Bowl 50, win or lose. He's come back from the brink once already -- twice if you count his entire lost 2011 season, and the four surgeries that came with it -- but it's a trick he can't continue to pull forever.
Is that a bad thing? As much as we make light of it, no. Decline is inevitable, and Manning has already endured longer than most. There's something voyeuristic about watching an incredible athlete break down on live television. But when Manning trots out under center in two weeks, withhold declarations on the state of his career.
Instead, remember that you've been wrong before.