DENVER — As a parent, every word of criticism ever aimed at Peyton Manning pricked the skin of Archie Manning, too.
Peyton Manning’s statistical supremacy only holds over critics for so long.
Because of who he is and what he’s done over his 16 seasons, Manning is judged differently.
He’s judged on the eight times he exited the playoffs after just one game.
They judge him on the Super Bowl he lost rather than the one in which he hoisted the trophy.
They judge him based on the success of his greatest rival, rather than his own.
“I get tired of it,” Archie Manning said. “It’s no different if it was somebody else’s son.”
Archie Manning quarterbacked in the NFL for 14 seasons without ever appearing in a playoff game.
“What’s [Peyton] played in now, 24 postseason games?” he asked.
Sunday’s AFC Championship game against the Patriots was actually Manning’s 22d, and all of the elements — including facing Tom Brady for a chance to reach the Super Bowl — only heightened the scrutiny.
It was hard for a father to understand.
“He’s kind of being ridiculed and saying he can’t do this,” Archie said. “I played in zero postseason games and I can tell you a bunch of guys in my era — old quarterbacks, buddies of mine — they’d love to say they played in 24 postseason games. So I get a little tired of it.”
Peyton Manning has long understood that it comes with being not just the face of a franchise but the standard by which his position is measured.
“I think playing quarterback, there are certainly a number of things that come along with it — being the starting quarterback of an NFL franchise,” Peyton said. “You have to try to keep a level head after a win, after a loss, not get too high or too low. That advice has served me well.”
With so much weight, Peyton Manning never looked so calm, as if he knew that the Broncos’ 26-16 win would only silence people for so long.
“I think we will enjoy this and you definitely have to take time to savor the moment,” Manning said. “I know I certainly will, being in my 16th season going to my third Super Bowl. I know how hard it is to get there, it’s extremely difficult. You do have to take a moment and enjoy the locker room with your teammates and enjoy dinner tonight with your family and friends. I think it’s important to do that and I will do that.”
With each pass Sunday, Manning quietly deconstructed the postseason label with which he’s been tagged.
Compared with Manning’s 32-for-43, 400-yard, two-touchdown performance art piece, everything about Tom Brady’s 24-for-38, 277-yard day seemed like a strain — the throws that floated over his receivers like parasails, the methodical drives that inevitably stalled around the red zone.
Manning, meanwhile, was putting on a passing seminar, and whenever Brady left the field, Manning seemed to pick up where he left off.
Their handshake after the game was genuine.
“Tom congratulated me and wished me luck. I said I told him what a great player — I’ve said to him a number of times — what a great player that I think that he is. He was very classy in his conversation with me.”
The two stars generally shower each other with mutual respect but they know perhaps better than anyone their respective levels of greatness, if only because they’ve been constantly measured against one another.
“He’s certainly one of the best players to ever play,” Brady said.
In this season alone, Manning put together a handful of milestones. The record-tying seven touchdown passes he rained on the Baltimore Ravens on the season’s opening night was the tone-setter. His 55 TD throws and 5,477 yards rewrote the record books. The Broncos’ 606 points solidified them as the most high-powered offense in NFL history.
“He’s been remarkable,” said coach John Fox. “It’s been unprecedented for what he did. Even a year ago, to come off from not playing, [a] very unusual injury that he was coming off of.
“To get to where he finished a season ago and then to start where he left off, to have the kind of season, not just today, but all season long that he’s had, to me is pretty remarkable. [We’re] reminded that there’s still one more game.”
Manning’s teammates realize they’re lining up next to a monument whenever they take the field.
“He’s a great man off the field,” said rookie running back Montee Ball. “A great leader and a great person to follow because he does everything right.”
Before Manning arrived, Demaryius Thomas was a young receiver with ultra-upside, but two years into his career his numbers were below expectations.
In two seasons with Manning, Thomas has caught 186 passes for 2,864 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Manning locked in on Thomas 10 times Sunday, and Thomas had seven catches for 134 yards and a TD.
“I just want to thank him for coming to the Broncos first off, because he didn’t have to come here,” Thomas said. “He helped my game, I think. I’m capable to go out and play fast now. He teaches everybody everything he knows. It helps us as a group and as an offense. To be able to go out and play fast, read coverage different, he just helped my whole game.”
Manning became an instant standard-setter, not just on the offense but throughout the organization.
“All week he demands perfection from the offense, the defense, special teams and it trickles down,” said defensive lineman Terrance Knighton.
Manning’s path to the Hall of Fame is already paved in gold, but in a way it makes watching him as a teammate an interesting balancing act.
On the one hand, Knighton said, you admire the real-time painting of a masterpiece. On the other, as a defense, you don’t want to ruin it.
“It’s unbelievable,” Knighton said. “To go out there and basically play flawless, we just knew on defense we had to go out there and play our part. I expected him to go out there and play like that today.”
In a locker room soaked in sweat and celebration, Archie Manning stood near the back, at the center of a small gathering of reporters.
In the middle of one of his thoughts, he pulled out his cellphone.
“My text count is 108,” he said.
The latest one was from Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton.
Archie Manning could run off all the names in the small fraternity of great quarterbacks that constantly show their support for his son, and when he does, it outweighs the criticism.
He said, “There’s a lot of guys out there that played the game that are friends of mine and friends of Peyton that are proud of him.”
Peyton Manning is now 2-2 in the playoffs against Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the Patriots. Manning’s numbers:
|2003 AFC Championship||Patriots, 24-14||23-47||237||1||4|
|2004 Divisional||Patriots, 20-3||27-42||238||0||1|
|2006 AFC Championship||Colts, 38-34||27-47||349||1||1|
|2013 AFC Championship||Broncos, 26-16||32-43||400||2||0|