ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Before he could get caught up in the inevitable hype of an AFC Championship matchup against the Patriots and his 17th faceoff with the one quarterback that has paralleled his greatness for nearly two decades, Peyton Manning thought back to November, the last time he was supposed to square off against Tom Brady.
He was on the sideline because of a torn plantar fascia, and having no choice but to watch was brutal.
Manning lasted the first half as a spectator. The Broncos were down, 14-7. Snow was just starting to fall. Then, Manning looked at linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who was just as antsy sitting out because of a back injury.
“Me and Peyton looked at ourselves and said we’re about to go in this locker room and do what we need to do,” Ware said.
They went to the equipment room and put on their headsets to hear the team’s calls while they watched the game on television.
The sound was muted, but Ware was still yelling at the telecast. If it wasn’t about a play call by defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, it was a tackle by linebacker Von Miller or defensive end Malik Jackson.
“DeMarcus is a big-time second-guesser,” Manning said. “You know, ‘What are we calling, Wade?’ You know, ‘Wrap up, Von! Wrap up, Malik!’
They were their own version of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth.
“It’s so weird to see when a quarterback gets a call and how he feels about a play because we’re watching it on national television,” Ware said. “Then I get a defensive play on the headset, he looks at me and I’m like, ‘Ah, man we should’ve called this play.’ And he’s like, ‘We should’ve called this play.”
The only difference was they could do something about it.
Manning spotted something and told Ware to run back to the sideline to relay a message.
“He said, ‘DeMarcus, go out there and tell them they need to run this play!’ ” Ware recalled. “And I’m running all the way back out there on the sideline and telling them about some play and it actually worked.”
Thinking back on how the Broncos came out of a 21-7 hole in the fourth quarter to beat the Patriots, 30-24, in overtime got a smile out of Manning as he started preparing for Sunday’s AFC Championship game.
But he was glad to be back to a point where he was running the plays instead of watching them.
“Ware and I were smiling [and saying] before the team meeting that it would be nice to be out on the actual playing field this time around as opposed to being in the equipment room where you’re watching the game — in mute,” Manning said. “The hot dogs aren’t bad in there, I’ll say that. But I much prefer to be on the playing field.”
Manning’s 18th season in the league has nagged and tortured him. The plantar fascia injury as well as a right shoulder injury cost him six games. The play of Brock Osweiler, his replacement, sparked a brush fire of a quarterback controversy while he was gone. He then had to angrily shoot down accusations from a December documentary produced by Al Jazeera America that linked him to HGH. And looming over it all was the constant din that his Hall of Fame career could be coming to an end.
“It’s been very different from any other season that I’ve played in 18 years,” Manning said. “So staying patient, taking it slow, one week at a time, that has certainly helped.”
He had no issues with sounding cliche, because getting back on the field was truly a week-to-week process. If the future wasn’t necessarily guaranteed, there was no point in looking into it.
“Try not to get too far ahead, try not to assume anything, any type of finality or any type of, ‘Hey, this is what’s going to happen in three weeks or four weeks,’ ” Manning said. “I truly kind of followed the old cliche of one week at a time and tried to stay patient. I think that served me well, because a lot has happened this season.”
Crossing paths with the Patriots is the one thing that has stayed the same. He has made an NFL-record 15 trips to the playoffs, and this will be the fifth time the Patriots have stood in his way.
“When the schedule comes out and you know you’re going to play them in the regular season, every time after that final second ticks off, you have a good feeling that you probably will see them again if you do your job and get to the playoffs,” Manning said. “That’s been the case certainly a number of times for me.”
The hype that comes with facing Brady has become so routine for Manning that even he jokes about how predictable his response to it has been.
“I’ve always kind of given the boring answer that it’s the Colts vs. the Patriots and now it’s the Broncos vs. the Patriots,” he said.
Broncos coach Gary Kubiak watched the rivalry from afar before going to Denver this season, and said being a part of it will be special.
“First off, it’s a credit to them because you don’t have the rivalry that they’ve had if you don’t last as long as both of them have lasted,” Kubiak said. “They’ve both been so successful. They’re two Hall of Fame players, two Hall of Fame people. They’re leaders on their football teams wherever they’ve been. It’s pretty special.”
The statistical greatness that Manning has achieved and Brady’s postseason success fuel a never-ending argument over who is the best quarterback of the generation, but Manning said that the respect between the two is mutual.
“All I can say about Tom Brady is that he plays the position the way it’s supposed to be played,” Manning said. “He’s extremely talented. He’s a very hard worker, very competitive guy, and he just plays the position the right way. When you do that, there’s a reason you’re playing for a long time. As a quarterback, it’s always been a great honor and privilege to compete against him that many times over the course of the past 16, 17 years.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.