Manning's mistake ends Broncos' season
DENVER — On the same day Peyton Manning was named All-Pro, it all fell apart.
There have been Manning meltdowns before. When he was with Indianapolis, his Colts plenty of times blew it in the playoffs.
But wasn't this season supposed to be different? Manning had made a gallant comeback with the Denver Broncos after missing all of last season with the Colts due to a neck injury. He led the Broncos to 11 straight wins to close the regular season, earning them the No. 1 seed in the AFC, and Saturday he made his sixth All-Pro team.
Then the season went down the tubes. Manning's Broncos, a 9 1/2-point favorite, were stunned 38-35 in double overtime by the Baltimore Ravens at Sports Authority Field in an AFC divisional playoff. Manning lost a fumble and threw two interceptions, one that was returned for a touchdown and one that led to Ravens kicker Justin Tucker booting the game-winning 47-yard field goal 1:42 into the second overtime.
"Bad throw," Manning, who heaved the ball into traffic and watched Corey Graham pick it off at the Denver 45, said of his last pass of the day. "Probably the decision (wasn't) great either. I thought I had an opening, and I didn't get enough on it. I was trying to make a play and (it) certainly was a throw I'd like to have back."
Manning has won one Super Bowl, leading the Colts to victory after the 2006 season. But his playoff disappointments are staggering considering his stature at a quarterback.
Manning's overall postseason mark dropped to 9-11. He's just 1-4 in divisional playoff games at home.
This season, though, seemed to be set up for Manning to have playoff dominance. The Broncos, in finishing 13-3, clearly had been the NFL's best team the second half of the season.
But on a 13-degree day, the coldest game in Broncos playoff history, there would not be enough Manning magic. He did complete 28-of-43 passes for 290 yards and three touchdowns. But his second interception was devastating.
Facing second-and-6 at his 38, Manning should have thrown the ball away. Instead, he tried to force it to Brandon Stokley, a great friend and had once played with Manning for four seasons on the Colts.
"He was trying to make a play," said Broncos coach John Fox. "I'm not going to be critical. There are a lot of different plays in that game that were costly. That was one of many. I'm sure he would like to have it back. But that is not what cost us the game."
Fox is right about that. The game looked to be won for the Broncos until Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco heaved a desperation 70-yard TD pass to Jacoby Jones that tied the score 35-35 with 31 seconds left in regulation.
Obviously the Broncos, who signed Manning as a free agent last March, would not have gone as far as they did this season without the 15-year veteran. So nobody in the Denver locker room after the game had a bad word to say about Manning's turnovers.
Many players felt horribly for their revered quarterback. Manning turns 37 in March — who knows how many more playoff chances he'll get as good as this one? The legendary John Elway, Denver's executive vice president of football operations who led the Broncos to Super Bowl wins after the 1997 and 1998 seasons, threw his last pass at 38.
"Peyton's just an amazing type of person," Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker told FOXSports.com after the game. "The way he prepared himself to get ready for this year. To miss a year and to come back and play as sharp as he did and to lead this team to where we are shows a lot about him.
"It makes me want to play harder for him because I respect him so much. The type of person he is, you want to compete and you want to win for him. It's a tough loss."
So it wasn't surprising Decker was kicking himself over Manning's first interception. With the score tied 7-7 barely five minutes into the game, Manning threw the ball across the middle to Decker. It bounced off him and Graham pulled it in and ran 39 yards for a touchdown.
"I probably got grabbed and I couldn't get my second hand up, so it bounced off my shoulder pads," said Decker, who had six catches for 84 yards. "That's the way it goes sometimes. I just got to play through it. I got to be more physical."
Manning bounced back to throw TD passes of 15 yards in the first quarter to Stokley, 14 yards to Knowshon Moreno in the second quarter and 17 yards to Demaryius Thomas in the fourth quarter. But Manning did have a key fumble in the third quarter that perhaps enabled the Ravens to stay in the game.
With 2:47 left in the quarter and facing third-and-10 at the Denver 46, Manning dropped back to pass with his team up 28-21. He was trying to throw to Thomas but realized he wasn't open and lost the ball after double-clutching it.
"You can go through a lot of plays . . . that you'd like to have back," Manning said. "Guys were excited, and to get beat in overtime by a field goal at the end, it's certainly disappointing . . . It definitely stings."
It sure does. With homefield advantage, the Broncos had expected Manning to at least get them to the Super Bowl. After all, they had even won a playoff game at home last season with a scatter-armed Tim Tebow.
Rookie running back Ronnie Hillman rushed for 83 yards, three shy of his best game ever. Still, he was among some Denver players who wished he could have done even more to get a victory for Manning.
"He's a guy who is a leader and you don't want to let him down," Hillman said. "It's very disappointing that we got out (of the playoffs) this early."
So instead of Saturday being the retiring Ray Lewis' last career game, it was the season swan song for Manning. Lewis, in his 17th year as a Baltimore linebacker, had lost nine straight games to Manning teams. But he wasn't enthralled that extending his career had to come at the expense of Manning.
"There's so much respect that I have for Peyton," Lewis said after the game. "Him and his wife are outside waiting on me now because of how great of friends we became through the years."
Manning, who entered the NFL in 1998, has shared many Pro Bowl trips to Hawaii with Lewis, who arrived in 1996. But some wondered if Manning, after missing all of 2011 due to the neck injury, ever would play in another NFL game, let alone a Pro Bowl.
Manning said there will come a time to fully reflect how far he came this season. But he couldn't deny he surprised himself with the way he and the Broncos performed.
"I accomplished a lot more this year than I certainly thought that I would have personally, and I think this team exceeded its expectations as well," said Manning, who threw for 4,659 yards and 37 touchdowns in 2012. "It's a hard one to swallow but you certainly give credit to Baltimore for coming in here and getting the victory."
The Broncos certainly exceeded expectations during the regular season. But not during the playoffs.
It goes down as one of the most devastating defeats in team history. Many are comparing it to 1996, when the Broncos also were 13-3 and had the No. 1 seed in the AFC. But they were stunned in their playoff opener 30-27 by a second-year Jacksonville team.
But some good did come out of that. A very focused outfit won Super Bowls in each of the next two seasons under Elway.
Perhaps there's still time for that to happen with Manning in Denver.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @christomasson