The play is startling: The Denver Broncos quarterback has to pick up five yards to make a first down in a divisional playoff game against Indy. Peyton Manning looks downfield. There's a wide open expanse of gridiron before him. Manning, the former Colt and certain first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, can easily pick up the yards he needs to keep the drive alive, if he'll just use his feet.
Manning attempts a sideline pass. The receiver's out of bounds. Incomplete.
"I don't know how it looked on TV, but the entire right side of the field was open, " says Darren McKee, sportscaster for 104.3 The Fan in Denver. "EVERY other quarterback in the league would have run. Had he run, that would've gotten everyone so fired up. There you go — that's his John Elway helicopter-hit moment.
"Andrew Luck would have hit [Broncos receiver] Emmanuel Sanders on that play just a second quicker ... Manning just doesn't have it."
The Colts would go on to win the game 24-13. The Colts are headed for the AFC Championship.
After losing his ninth first round playoff game — a record in the modern era — Manning may be headed for retirement.
Manning — who has a children's hospital named after him here in Indy, whose skill and personality built a middling franchise into a powerhouse, who was instrumental in bringing both the Lombardi Trophy and a stadium glitzy enough to host America's Biggest Display of Sports Excess to Indy — has exited the playoffs early once again.
"If you want to look at one moment that encapsulates why Manning shouldn't come back to the NFL, that's the moment," sighs McKee.
Yeah, Manning was injured. "Peyton had a torn quad," says Joe Stasyniak, half of the Grady and Big Joe Show on Indy's iteration of The Fan, 1070 AM. "But Aaron Rodgers (quarterback of the Green Bay Packers) had a torn calf muscle and still won. Injury's part of the game."
Is Manning really done?
"It's clearly over —" McKee stops himself midsentence during a phone interview on Monday morning after the Broncos' loss. "Well, I shouldn't jump that far. On Christmas Eve, I asked him, 'Are there any circumstances in which you wouldn't return next year?' And incredibly, nobody had asked him that all year. His response to that was instantaneous: 'I'm back next year if they'll have me.'"
Manning's response to McKee's query lit up the sports airwaves over the holidays, although the quarterback's game had seemed off during the latter part of the season.
After the loss to Indy, though, Manning "hemmed and hawed and said we have to evaluate and this and that ... I asked him more directly: 'So it's not certain you'll be back next year?' and he said 'No. It's not.' He said one thing on Dec. 24, and then on Jan. 11, three weeks later, the message is far different." (As NUVO went to press, Manning said he was "processing." The Broncos, meanwhile, have parted ways with head coach John Fox.)
McKee understands how Colts fans must be conflicted: thrilled at seeing Andrew Luck and the rest of a young squad headed for an AFC Championship in Luck's third year — an incredible accomplishment — yet saddened by the image of a hangdog, frustrated Manning that loped off the field after every failed series last Sunday.
"He's been awesome to cover," notes McKee. "You wish your kids would attack school like Peyton Manning attacks football."
So what are the Broncos to do if Manning hangs 'em up?
Short answer: lose — just more often, in all likelihood. "The level of QB talent in the NFL is such that it's hard to find MEDIOCRE quarterbacks," says McKee. "[Manning] may still be your best option. The sad reality is he's never going to win a Super Bowl — he doesn't have it. He's too scared. He's not only hurt, he's worn down. Manning never wants to leave the game. He's up by 28 points in the fourth quarter with nine minutes to go and he's running onto the field."
Meanwhile, here in Blue Nation
"Peyton didn't play great, but the Colts had a lot to do with it," counters Staysniak. "This was the best defensive back play we've seen all year — maybe the best in the last five years. "
The Colts defensive coordinator had prepped his backs well. "[Greg] Manusky specifically called these guys out and said, 'We're going to need to lean on you. When it's a one-on-one, you'll need to respond,' and they did," says Staysniak.
The Colts have proven they can beat an injured, aging Manning. But can they beat Brady and the Patriots in Sunday's AFC Championship game?
"I thought I was an expert but apparently I don't have a clue," answers Staysniak, laughing. "You're not supposed to have two interceptions, you're not supposed to have ten penalties, you're not supposed to miss field goals and win — especially on the road against the number three defense in the league."
"At this point, these guys just need to play for each other. Don't worry about the negatives. I've been told not to parent in a negative way. You don't tell your kids don't, don't, don't. These guys need to do — go out there with passion. They seem to overcome everything and anything that's put in their path. Keep playing the way you're playing."
A level of playoff excellence from Andrew Luck is critical, of course — but Staysniak thinks the key's on the other side of the ball.
"When the defense plays like they did against Denver, they will be tough to beat."