Peyton Manning's road to Super Bowl 50 is an ironic redemption tour
With all due respect to Alanis Morissette, the irony of Peyton Manning's journey to Super Bowl 50 isn't lost on me.
Based on how his previous playoff runs have unfolded, it's not a stretch to say Manning has taken the road less traveled this year and beaten some familiar foes using some new tricks.
Some of the breaks he's gotten in these playoffs have shown that his professional football life has come full circle. Let's take a look at how:
SOME STEELEY REVENGE
In the Broncos' divisional-round win against the Steelers, a fumble changed the outcome, swung it in Manning's favor. With Denver down 13-12 with less than 10 minutes left, cornerback Bradley Roby, punched the ball from Fitzgerald Toussaint's arms and teammate DeMarcus Ware recovered at the Denver 35-yard line.
The Steelers looked to be driving for a potential game-sealing drive.
Roughly 10 years ago to the week, Manning had what looked to be a fortuitous fumble go his way in a game he was supposed to win against the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger.
That time, it was Jerome Bettis who opened the door for a possible Manning comeback. But a game-saving tackle by Big Ben and a Mike Vanderjagt miss sent the Colts home in stunning fashion while the Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl.
Indianapolis Colts linebacker Gary Brackett's forced fumble on Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis ended up not helping. The Steelers beat the Colts, 21-18, at the RCA Dome on Jan. 15, 2006.
That was just how things used to go for Manning. The ball never really bounced his way, but by sending the Steelers home, he exorcised some of the demons from 10 years ago.
TURNING THE TABLES ON TOM
Last week, Manning took down Tom Brady and the New England Patriots for the third time in four tries in AFC title games. The best part about it was Manning actually did the deed to Brady the way the Patriots used to beat Manning's Colts: a ferocious defensive effort, with an offense that made plays when it needed to.
On Sunday, when the Broncos defense hit Brady upwards of 20 times, Manning got the Broncos in the end zone twice. In 2003, Manning lost to Brady in the AFC title game, 24-14, and threw four interceptions. He was sacked four times. The following year, the Patriots defense dominated the Colts again, this time in the divisional round, in a 20-3 win where the Colts offense was completely neutralized and their defense allowed the Pats over 200 yards on the ground.
This past Sunday, the script was flipped on Brady, as Manning watched his defense stop the Patriots on two critical fourth-down attempts in the fourth quarter and then on a potential game-tying two-point conversion that would have sent the game to overtime.
I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall on the sidelines as Manning, for once, got to ride a top-rated defense to victory rather than have to force throws and make plays late in a playoff game that had he had to win using his arm. At 39, after having already been benched once this season, he simply can't do that anymore.
Brady was the one taking the beating on Sunday, forcing the ball up 56 times, throwing two interceptions (three if you count the pick on the two-point conversion) and only getting 31 yards from his running game.
THE LAST DANCE
Beating Brady leveled Manning's playoff record to 13-13. The playoffs have been Manning's bugaboo for a long time. His record has never been more than one game over .500, a huge talking point in terms of his legacy. His 1-2 Super Bowl record is also one of the strikes held against him when it comes to why he may not be the best quarterback of all time, or why Brady is better.
He arrives at his fourth trip to the Super Bowl with the chance to level his Super Bowl record, too, and even though he won't talk about it, it's likely not lost on him.
A win against the Panthers would help erase images of Saints cornerback Tracy Porter running to the end zone to lock up Super Bowl XLIV, a 31-17 loss.
It could do a lot to repair the image of Manning and these Broncos getting manhandled by the Seahawks two years ago, too, in a 43-8 game that was over the second the first snap flew over Manning's head and out of the end zone for a safety.
But if you want some more irony, Manning would be doing it the same way his boss did it. John Elway's back-to-back wins in Super Bowl XXXII and XXXIII capped his career and helped us all remember him as a winner. Forget the 39-26, 42-10 and 55-10 shellackings Elway took from the Giants, Redskins, and 49ers, respectively, in the 1980s.
Elway rode running back Terrell Davis to two career-capping titles and wash away the stain from earlier in his career, when he, too, was forced to get basically carry the Broncos to the Super Bowl.
Denver quarterback John Elway goes airborne to pick up a first down in Super Bowl XXXII. The Broncos defeated the Green Bay Packers, 31-24.
If Manning can somehow lean on his defense against the powerhouse 15-1 Panthers, he'd be able to ride off in a similar fashion, having vanquished many of the foils that plagued him earlier in his career.
The circle of his football life would be complete.