ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The carpool became part of Eric Decker and Jacob Tamme’s routine last season. They’d leave the team hotel and pile into Peyton Manning’s car.
Usually Decker takes the backseat. Tamme rides shotgun.
“It’s like a seniority thing or something,” Tamme said.
They don’t generally bother the radio.
“Usually,” Tamme said, “just roll with whatever he’s been listening to.”
It’s not exactly the stuff Manning’s Buick commercials are made of.
“Yeah, we call Archie [Manning] ‘Papa Bear’ and stuff on the way to the game,” Tamme joked. “‘Orange cone, re-route.”
But it’s the chance for them to talk one last time as both friends and teammates before they get to Sports Authority Field at Mile High for a game.
“That’s what it’s about,” Tamme said. “It’s about the little stuff and the camaraderie of being around these guys. That’s what is hard when a season ends, is you know that same group is never going to be around again. We’ve been blessed to get where we’re at now and we’ve got to find a way to win this game on Sunday and keep it going.”
From that point on, Manning won’t look ahead or behind.
He won’t think about a year ago, when a Ravens team needing a miracle ended up getting one at their expense.
He won’t think about a year from now and whether he’ll still want to pour himself in a game he’s played for 16 years, putting up nearly 65,000 passing yards and pushing through four neck surgeries.
He won’t think about contracts or career goals or legacies.
He’ll think only about the opportunity in front of him.
“You realize you’re driving down on Sunday, only two games are being played,” Manning said. “So you kind of feel fortunate.”
Two years ago, everything was changing.
Coming off a neck surgery that cost him the entire 2011-12 season, Manning wasn’t sure if he’d ever be the same quarterback. Neither were the Colts, who had to make the painful decision to part ways with the quarterback that had been the team’s identity for 14 years.
But coming off a season in which he set season records for touchdowns (55) and passing yards (5,477), those days seem like a distant memory.
“There is no question that we have come a long way in the two years that I have been here,” Manning said. “I have certainly come a long way. A lot of people have helped me and have certainly put a lot of hard work into it, and it is very rewarding when you put [in] a lot of hard work and it pays off with the opportunity to play in a game like this.
“You don’t take [it] for granted, especially when you’ve been through an injury, been through a major change and you’re in the home stretch of your career. We’re excited about the opportunity; we’ve worked hard to get to this point.”
This will be the fourth time Manning and Tom Brady have faced off in the postseason and the 15th time their historic paths have crossed overall.
Their mutual admiration is well-documented. So are the stark differences in their careers. Manning has 167 career wins, 491 career touchdowns, 5,532 carer completions, and 64,964 yards passing (all second all-time to Brett Favre), but just one Super Bowl win. Brady is the all-time leader in playoff wins (18), yards (6,147), and completions (566), is third on the postseason touchdown list (42, eight more than Manning), and has three rings to flash.
It’s a track record Manning has the utmost respect for.
“I think the one thing that jumps out about Tom is just his consistency,” Manning said. “I feel like he’s been a better player each year than he was the year before, and that, to me, speaks to his work ethic in the offseason, his refusal to be complacent or satisfied. He always feels like he can step his game up one level higher, which [in] some of the seasons he’s had you say, ‘How can you get better than that?’ But I think he has done that.
“The conversations that I’ve had with him, I can tell that’s something that’s always a goal and a focus of his every offseason — targeting something that he wants to work on and improve. And he’s done that, and that’s a real credit to him. That’s just one thing. There are many, many well-deserved accolades and adjectives to describe the way he’s played quarterback and the way he’s competed, but [consistency is] one that’s really impressive to me.”
But Manning puts the same level of energy into constantly preparing as Brady puts into constantly improving.
Manning’s relentless attention to detail hasn’t changed. His love of minutia has probably grown the longer he’s been in the league, Manning said.
“I think that’s probably the challenge as you get older,” Manning said. “Everybody probably enjoys the football games but I’ve heard players in their late years say that they enjoyed the games but they didn’t enjoy the preparation and the offseason workouts and the meetings and all that.
“I still do enjoy that part of it. I think being in a new offense, being with a new offensive coordinator, having some new teammates, it keeps you stimulated. It keeps you on your toes and it keeps you constantly learning each week something new. I think that’s important to enjoy the process not just the outcomes of the games.
The attitude Manning takes into every game has been as infectious in the Broncos locker room as his meticulous approach.
“It’s not like you see the up-and-downs from Peyton,” said veteran cornerback Champ Bailey. “Peyton is always up, because he’s always ready, always prepared, and it’s good to see that firsthand.”
When Manning came to Denver, there was urgency in his tone.
“This is a now situation,” he said at the time.
It’s why he values each game — and each car ride — so much.
“When you go through a significant injury and a major career change, you truly do go one year at a time and you don’t look past what’s going on now because you’re not sure what’s going to happen,” he said. “Tomorrow is not promised.”
At 37, Manning is only a year younger than John Elway was when he stepped away from the game. Elway had just won the second of back-to-back Super Bowls and was able to ride off into the twilight on top.
Whether that thought has crossed Manning’s mind is something Elway isn’t entirely sure of.
Speaking to a select gathering of reporters, Elway said, “I still think he’s young and he’s playing well. That’s going to come down to Peyton. It’s going to come down to what he wants to do. Having been a football player before, when you leave this game, you want to leave it on your last leg, and try not to leave anything on the table.
By the time Elway retired in 1998, he no longer had a lateral meniscus in his left knee.
“Anybody that’s a competitor, that’s kind of the way they want to leave the game,” Elway said. “I was just fortunate to be able to be on two great football teams and be able to win world championships when my last leg broke.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.