Football isn’t played any better than Peyton Manning played on Sunday.
In a masterful performance to get his Broncos to the Super Bowl, Manning threw for 400 yards, didn’t turn the ball over and was in complete control of a Broncos offense that New England simply couldn’t stop. He was just about flawless throwing the football.
Manning’s entire career is a testament to hard work, and he said after the game that it was the hard work he put in the week before that made Sunday go so well.
“I prepared hard. We were playing a good football team that was well coached, and I thought we executed our game plan, and that’s what I was focused on all week,” Manning said afterward.
That preparation is the reason that Manning is, in my opinion, the best play caller in the NFL — better even than masters like Saints head coach Sean Payton. Although the Broncos have an offensive coordinator, Adam Gase, the reality is that the offense is run by Manning, who makes the calls at the line of scrimmage. And Manning was a step ahead of Bill Belichick’s defense all day. My favorite call by Manning was actually a handoff: He saw room to run in the middle of the Patriots’ defense on a third-and-10 in the first quarter so he handed off to Knowshon Moreno, who ran through a huge hole for a first down. I also loved the pass Manning called to Jacob Tamme with three minutes left in the fourth quarter, while the Broncos were trying to conserve their lead. Some people would have played it safe and handed off there, but Manning picked up a big first down through the air.
“As always, he did an excellent job reading the defenses and he got us in some situations that were less than ideal with his astute play calling and recognition,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said after the game. “They’re obviously a good football team, a good offensive system, a good quarterback.”
The talk that Manning is a playoff choker should go away now, but that talk has always been overstated. Yes, there have been some playoff games when Manning under-performed, but he’s also had some outstanding playoff outings. Sunday was Manning’s third career playoff game with at least 400 yards, his fifth career playoff game with at least 350 yards and his ninth career playoff game with at least 300 yards. Manning is currently second all-time with 6,309 career postseason passing yards, and if he throws for at least 116 yards in the Super Bowl, he’ll pass Tom Brady for first all time.
Manning was better than Brady on Sunday, but too much is made of the head-to-head competition between those two, mostly because it isn’t a competition at all. Manning wasn’t playing against Brady on Sunday. The competition for Manning is the opposing defense. And this season, from Week One through the AFC Championship Game, Manning has riddled opposing defenses like no other quarterback in NFL history.
Manning was the best player on the field in either game on Sunday. Here are my other thoughts:
Seattle has the best pass defense Manning has faced. This Super Bowl is such a great matchup. Manning is coming off the best season for a quarterback in NFL history, but the Seahawks have by far the best pass defense in the NFL. This year’s Seahawks were just the second team ever in a 16-game season to lead the league in both passing yards allowed and interceptions. The only other team to do it was Tampa Bay in 2002, and those Buccaneers won the Super Bowl. Manning has a tall order against Seattle.
Champ Bailey finally gets to the Super Bowl. Bailey was (along with Tony Gonzalez) perhaps the greatest of all the active players who haven’t been to a Super Bowl. It’s good to see an old pro like Bailey make it at last.
Welker’s hit was legal, but maybe it shouldn’t be. Broncos receiver Wes Welker knocked Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib out of the game by drilling him on a crossing route over the middle. Welker wasn’t flagged, but the NFL should do more to protect players in the position Talib was in: A rule that protects defensive backs who are trailing one receiver from getting hit by another receiver while the ball is in the air would only be fair, after all the rules the NFL has implemented preventing defensive players from hitting receivers.
Aldon Smith is incredible. Smith, the 49ers outside linebacker who started the NFC Championship Game with a strip-sack of Russell Wilson, is one of the most talented pass rushers the NFL has ever seen. I hope he gets his personal issues straightened out, because he should have about a decade of being a great, great football player ahead of him.
Kaepernick is running like no other quarterback, ever. Colin Kaepernick has now rushed for 95 or more yards three times in six career playoff games. All other quarterbacks in NFL history, combined, have rushed for 95 or more yards in the playoffs twice. (Michael Vick did it once and Donovan McNabb did it once.) And how’s this for an amazing stat: Kaepernick and Barry Sanders have each played in six postseason games. Kaepernick has 507 career playoff rushing yards. Sanders had 386 career playoff rushing yards.
The Broncos out-played the Patriots in the trenches. Give Denver’s offensive line a lot of credit for keeping Manning upright (the Patriots barely touched him), and even more credit for opening huge holes on running plays: This was a dominant performance by the offensive line. And give Denver’s defensive line a lot of credit, too. Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount, who had been so good the last couple games, had just six yards on five carries thanks to a great effort by Denver up front. For all the talk that we’ll hear over the next two weeks about Manning and Russell Wilson, the team that plays better on the line of scrimmage will probably be the team that wins the Super Bowl.