Peyton Williams Manning was born on March 24, 1976, in New Orleans, Louisiana.(Click here for today's sports birthdays.) He was the second of Archie and Olivia Manning’s three sons. Cooper, the oldest, arrived in 1974. Eli came into the world five years after Peyton. All three boys looked like athletes from the time they could crawl. At 12-plus pounds at birth, Peyton appeared he might be headed for a career as an offensive lineman.
The size of the Manning kids wasn’t surprising given their genes. Archie was one of the most celebrated athletes in the history of the South. A legend at the University of Mississippi, he played quarterback from 1968 to 1970 for the Rebels, where he was twice voted an All-American. He then became the top pick of the New Orleans Saints, embarking on a star-crossed 14-year NFL career that also saw him suit up for the Houston Oilers and Minnesota Vikings. A hard-hitting shortstop in his youth, Archie could have chosen professional baseball as a career path, having been drafted by the Atlanta Braves after graduating from Drew High School—and later by the Kansas City Royals and Chicago White Sox.
Olivia was a perfect
match for Archie, who was treated like royalty wherever he went in the
South. She had been named Homecoming Queen at Ole Miss in 1970.
For Peyton, childhood was perfect. He idolized his father and dreamed of being a star college quarterback. The Mannings were a close-knit bunch. Trips across the state to visit Grandma Manning in Drew, or to see Olivia’s parents in the town of Philadelphia, were always eagerly anticipated.
Peyton's only bad memories came when professional athletics intruded on the family's homelife. The Saints were the laughingstock of the NFL, and despite some great individual seasons, Archie often bore the brunt of the fans’ ire. In 1982, after he was traded to the Oilers, Archie talked it over with Olivia and they decided the family would stay in New Orleans. Peyton and brothers missed their dad terribly.
Archie bounced between the Oilers and Vikings the next four years. In 1984, his last season in the NFL, Olivia and the boys followed him to Minneapolis. Peyton hoped to get his first taste of organized football there, but he was too young for the fifth-grade squad.
The Mannings returned to New Orleans the following year, and Peyton looked forward to playing football for Isidore Newman School, one of Louisiana’s top private schools. There was only one problem: Newman cancelled its sixth-grade program. Finally, in 1988, Peyton got his chance to put on the pads for the first time. When asked to list his favorite positions, he wrote down “quarterback” and “defensive back.”
Years of watching from the sidelines had given Peyton lots of time to brush up on his football knowledge. A trivia buff, he was absolutely crazy about the college game. For him, nothing compared to the SEC. He listened to audio tapes of his dad’s college games and quizzed his little brother on the conference’s storied past. When Eli couldn’t answer a question, he usually received a pounding.
Though life in the Manning house revolved around sports, Archie and Olivia never pushed their kids to be stars. In fact, Archie attempted to coach Peyton just once—in youth-league basketball—and the results were disastrous. Peyton chewed out his dad for stocking the team with his friends, instead of the best players available.
Cooper was the source of part of Peyton's competitive fire. The two waged regular battles, fighting over who was better, smarter or tougher. Despite their sibling rivalry, however, deep down they admired each other immensely.
When Peyton won the starting quarterback job at Newman as a sophomore 1991, it was Cooper who paved the way. He switched to receiver his senior year, even though he was set to call the signals for the Greenies, the defending Class 2A state champs. The move paid big dividends. In the season opener, Peyton completed nine passes to Cooper in the first half alone. Newman went on to a 12-2 record and advanced to the semifinals of the playoffs. On the year, Peyton threw for 23 touchdowns, a baker’s dozen to his brother. To this day, he says he has never had more fun on the football field.
Peyton was also a high achiever in the classroom. His parents stressed education above all else, and he happily complied. A hard-working student, he rarely brought home a report card with anything but A’s.
Peyton workd just as hard when it came to football. He watched film religiously, usually of pro games, and also hit the weight room. The teenager was developing as a player in ways foreign to most kids his age. Eli still remembers how much his hands hurt after having a catch with Peyton. His older brother always rifled the ball with amazing velocity.
Peyton enjoyed another marvelous campaign in 1992, throwing for 30 touchdowns. The season, however, was bittersweet. Earlier in the year Cooper, who had accepted a scholarship to Ole Miss, had been diagnosed with a rare disease called spinal stenosis. Doctors said he would never play football again. Peyton was devastated. He wrote a letter to his brother telling him just how he felt.
Peyton overcame the pain of his brother’s illness to have a season for the ages his senior year. Connecting on 63 percent of his attempts, he passed for 2,703 yards and 39 touchdowns. Peyton was honored as the Gatorade Circle of Champions National Player of the Year and the Columbus (Ohio) Touchdown Club National Offensive Player of the Year.
ON THE RISE
Peyton spent his final season at Newman playing in front of crowds full of college scouts. The leaders in one of the nation’s most intense recruiting wars were Michigan, Florida State, Notre Dame, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Had Cooper still been a Rebel, there’s no doubt where Peyton would have gone. Still, the pressure on him to follow in his father’s footsteps and attend Ole Miss was overwhelming. But on January 25, 1994, he announced he was headed to Tennessee. People throughout Mississippi were shocked. Peyton apologized more than once during his press conference.
Tennessee’s quarterback picture was muddled heading into the ‘94 campaign. Head coach Phil Fulmer had landed another prized recruit in Brandon Stewart, while upper classmen Jerry Colquitt and Todd Helton were the incumbents. Determined to win the starting job, Peyton showed up for football camp six weeks early, eager to begin working out.
Fulmer, meanwhile, expected to trudge through a rebuilding year. Heath Shuler and Charlie Garner had left for the NFL, as had six first-stringers on defense. Though the Vols still had plenty of talent, the SEC’s East Division promised tough games against the likes of Florida and Georgia, while out-of-conference foes included UCLA and Washington State.
Tennessee got off to a rugged start, losing three of its first four. But the campaign turned when Colquitt and Helton both were felled by knee injuries. Fulmer called on Peyton as his #1 quarterback, and the Vols went 7-1 with the freshman at the helm, including a decisive victory over Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl. On the year, Peyton passed for 1,141 yards and 11 scores, and was named SEC Freshman of the Year.
The freshman saw his first action in the season opener, a 31-0 thrashing at the hands of the Bruins. He entered the contest with the Vols down by 18 points and immediately tried to take control of the huddle. No one was up for a pep talk. Slowly, over the next few months, Peyton's teammates realized just how serious he was about winning. His no-nonsense attitude eventually had its intended effect.
the off-season, Peyton watched hours of video, improved his strength and
footwork and even organized unofficial practices with key players on the
Vols’ offense. He entered the fall of 1995 as Tennessee’s
unquestioned leader. Colquitt was done after his knee injury, Helton opted
for a baseball career with the Colorado Rockies, and Stewart simply didn’t
have Peyton’s presence or ability.
But in the meat-grinder known as Tennessee football, the campaign was ultimately viewed a failure because of the lone blemish on the Vols’ schedule, a loss to Florida. In that one, Peyton guided the team to a 30-14 halftime lead, then watched as Tennessee collapsed in the final two quarters, surrendering 48 points en route to a 25-point blowout.
Peyton spent another off-season with his nose to the grindstone, both on and off the field. In the classroom, he took the maximum number of courses available to him. Peyton had his eye on the NFL, but he didn’t want to leave college without a degree—even if that meant having to pile up enough credits to graduate by the end of his junior year.
Peyton’s third season at Tennessee was a lot like the previous one. Again, his passing totals were super. With defenses focused on stopping him, he still topped 3,000 yards and threw for 20 touchdowns. An AP and Football News third-team All-America, he posted five games of 300+ yards. In a return to the Citrus Bowl, Peyton led the Vols to a 48-28 rout of Northwestern with four TD tosses.
Peyton’s two favorite targets were speed burners Joey Kent and Marcus Nash, while Peerless Price also emerged as a deep threat. Jay Graham, meanwhile, was the team’s best rusher. On defense, Leonard Little was a difference-maker, helping Tennessee force 30 turnovers and hold opponents to less than 15 points a game.
As in ’95, however, the Vols ended 1996 feeling unfulfilled. Despite a 10-2 record, another embarrassing September loss to Florida stayed with them. In a completely one-sided first half, the Gators built a 35-0 lead. Peyton suffered through his worst moments in a Tennessee uniform, getting picked off four times. Though he responded in the second half with a masterful performance—he wound up with 492 yards passing—it was too little, too late as Florida hung on 35-29.
Peyton faced a big
decision in the winter of 1997. A certain first-round pick in the upcoming
NFL Draft, he weighed the option of going pro. Peyton sought advice from
the likes of Tim Duncan, Michael Jordan, Fran Tarkenton, Roger Staubach,
Phil Simms, Troy Aikman and Drew Bledsoe. Though most told him to skip
his final college season, he chose to return to the Vols. The lure of
competing for the national championship—and making a run at the
Heisman Trophy—was too strong.
With Peyton back for his senior year, Tennessee was an easy Top-10 choice in the preseason polls. The main question was whether halfback Mark Levine could shoulder the rushing load. On the outside, Nash and Price returned to give Peyton two of the SEC’s top receiving weapons. On defense, Leonard was the main man, though linebacker Al Wilson and corner Terry Fair also showed gamebreaking talent.
Tennessee opened the season with easy wins over Texas Tech and UCLA. Next up was hated Florida, in Knoxville. The Gators shut down the Vols' running game, forcing Peyton into obvious passing situations. He didn't respond well to the pressure and committed several crucial mistakes, including an interception that Tony George ran back 89 yards for a touchdown. The Vols lost 33-20.
Unwilling to give up on the campaign, Peyton called a players-only meeting, urging his teammates to keep their focus on the national championship. When Florida lost two games and dropped out of contention for the title, he looked like a genius. He also played like one. Peyton ravaged Kentucky with 523 yards and four TDs. Against Southern Mississippi, he accounted for five scoring tosses. At Alabama, he threw for 304 yards and three TDs, and afterwards conducted Tennessee’s Pride of Southland Band in a rendition of “Rocky Top.” All those who questioned Peyton’s decision to remain in college were eatingcrow. The Vols were in serious contention for the national championship, and he was a leading candidate for the Heisman.
Peyton and the Vols cruised into the SEC championship game against Auburn. When the Tigers seized a 20-7 lead, Tennessee looked to its quarterback. Peyton delivered a dramatic 30-29 comeback victory and walked away with game MVP honors.
The Vols next prepared for Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. The national title equation was simple: Tennessee needed to win its game and hope for a loss by Michigan in the Rose Bowl. Banged up with a sore knee heading into the contest, Peyton received more bad news when Charles Woodson outdistanced him in the Heisman race—a result that raised more than a few eyebrows.
Peyton shrugged off the Heisman disappointment in time for the Orange Bowl, but his knee was still a concern. Fulmer, in turn, reworked the game plan, hoping to protect his quarterback from Nebraska’s pass rush. It was no use. The Cornhuskers confused Peyton all night long, limiting him to 134 yards through the air. On offense, Nebraska pounded away at Tennessee's smaller defensive line and rolled to a 42-17 victory.
Peyton ended the year with single-season school marks for completions (287), yards (3,819) and touchdowns (36). He won the Sullivan Award as the nation’s top amateur athlete, becoming only the fourth football player to do so. Peyton also captured the Maxwell Award, Davey O’Brien Award, Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, and was named first team All-America by every major media outlet.
Despite his inability
to win the big one at Tennessee, Peyton was the talk of the 1998 NFL draft.
The Indianapolis Colts and San Diego Chargers owned selections #1 and
#2, and both teams needed a quarterback. Indy GM Bill Polian made the
call, settling on Peyton over Ryan Leaf, Washington State’s much-ballyhooed
Head coach Jim Mora wasted no time turning the offense over to his rookie. Peyton took the reigns in minicamp and impressed the Indy staff by making only one bad throw in three days. He then got waylayed by contract negotiations, which caused him to miss the beginning of training camp in August. But the two sides finally agreed on a lucrative six-year deal, the richest in NFL rookie history.
Even with his quarterback ready to go, Mora was uncertain about his team’s chances in 1998. The Colts had posted the league’s worst record in ‘97, due in large part to an awful defense. The team remained thin along the line, and the secondary was no better than mediocre. On the upside, Indy featured a potentially lethal offense. Marshall Faulk was a dangerous double-threat as a runner and pass-catcher, wide receiver Marvin Harrison had the skills to be a star, and tight end Ken Dilger was another reliable target. Peyton’s maturation would have a lot to do with how the unit gelled.
As Mora feared, the Colts struggled to stop anyone and limped home at 3-13. The bright spot was the chemistry that Peyton developed with Harrison. Both were workout freaks. They spent long hours on the practice field together, and by the end of the season, they were in perfect sync. Peyton seemed to go to Harrison whenever he needed a big completion. The Syracuse product caught 59 passes, seven for touchdowns.
Peyton, meanwhile, enjoyed one of the finest rookie campaigns ever by a quarterback. Though he threw 28 intercetions, he never took his foot off the gas, feeling this was the best way to accelerate his development. With 575 attempts, 326 completions and 3,739 yards, he broke the NFL first-year records of Rick Mirer. His 26 touchdown passes tied him for second on Indy’s rookie list with Earl Morrall, six behind Johnny Unitas. Peyton was also the only Colts QB to crouch under center for every snap of a season.
In the offseason, Polian gambled by trading Faulk to St. Louis, then drafting Edgerrin James over Ricky Williams, the player the fans in Indianapolis really wanted. To bolster their defense, the Colts signed free agents Chad Bratzke, Shawn King, Cornelius Bennett and Chad Cota. With Peyton getting better every day and an improving offensive line, the team was stronger on both sides of the ball.
James also made the Colts better. Like Peyton and Harrison, he was the gridiron equivalent of gym rats. As Peyton's urging, James joined them on the practice field, and the trio began to operate like a well-oiled machine.
MAKING HIS MARK
The hard work paid off. James was marvelous as a rookie, rushing for 1,553 yards and 13 touchdowns. His 2,139 yards from scrimmage were just 73 short of the NFL’s record for first-year players. Harrison also had a breakout season with 115 receptions for 1,662 yards and 12 TDs. Peyton, however, was the catalyst. Earning his first trip to Pro Bowl, he passed for 4,135 yards and 26 scores, and posted a 90.7 QB rating. He combined with Harrison and James to become the first Indy QB-RB-WR tandem to go to Hawaii since Bert Jones, Lydell Mitchell and Roger Carr in 1976.
Peyton set the tone
early in the campaign. In a September win at San Diego, he burned the
Chargers with 404 yards through the air, breaking Unitas’s single-game
yardage mark. Three months later, on the first Sunday in December, he
rallied the Colts for a crucial victory over the Miami Dolphins, directing
the game-winning drive with less than a minute remaining on the clock.
The following week, Indianapolis clinched the division title by defeating
the Redskins. The win in Washington was one of six fourth-quarter comebacks
Peyton orchestrated in ‘99. Not even Johnny U.—the master
of the two-minute offense—could match that total.
Peyton, Harrison and James keyed one of the NFL’s biggest turnarounds in years. Indy reversed its record, finishing first in the AFC East at 13-3. The Colts, however, faltered in the playoff with a loss to the Tennessee Titans. The defense again was Indy's downfall, so the team used its first two draft picks in 2000 on middle linebacker Rob Morris and pass-rush specialist Marcus Washington. The idea was to create turnovers by applying more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
The 'oo season started promisingly enough. Indianapolis was 6-2 after its first eight contests, but then old problems began cropping up. The team staggered through November, falling behind in most games and then furiously trying to come back. Thanks to a pair of important victories in December, the Colts finished at 10-6, which earned them a Wild Card berth against the Dolphins. After moving ahead 14-0 early in the contest, Indy fell apart and lost 23-17 in overtime.
The defeat was particularly hard for Peyton to swallow. He had put together another terrific season, setting new club standards in passing yards (4,413), completions (357) and touchdowns (33)—all of which also led the NFL. Harrison (102 catches for 1,413 yards and 14 TDs) was on beneficiary of Peyton’s continued development. So was James. In fact, when the halfback captured his second straight rushing title, he and Peyton became the first pair of teammates since to top the league in running and passing since Cliff Battles and Sammy Baugh did it for Washington in 1937.
In the postseason, however, Peyton came up short again. His numbers against the Dolphins—17 for 32 for 194 yards and a TD—looked good, but Miami stymied the Colts after their first few drives. When the Fish found their rhythm on offense, Indianapolis was helpless to stop them. Lamar Smith punished the Colts with 209 yards on the ground, sending Peyton and company home early for the second year in a row.
The disappointing end to the ‘00 campaign lingered into 2001. Polian confused many by selecting receiver Reggie Wayne in the first round of the draft, even though Indy clearly had a need for bulk on the defensive line. Giving Peyton another option on the outside was an intriguing prospect, but the Colts still faced the challenge of keeping opponents off the scoreboard. The most notable additions on defense were veteran tackle Christian Peter and rookie free safety Idrees Bashir.
Given the make-up of the team, no one was overly surprised when Indianapolis slumped to 6-10. The defense, ranked 29th in the league, couldn’t stop anyone, which forced the offense was to be almost perfect. When James went down with a knee injury, the Colts turned one-dimensional.
Unafraid of Indy’s
running game, opposing defenses focused solely on Peyton. While he passed
for 4,131 yards and 26 scores, his interception total climbed to 23, second
most in the league. Too often Peyton relied on Harrison, which made it
even easier to defend Indianapolis. The Colts finished with the NFL’s
second best overall offense, but they didn’t dominate as they had
in the past.
The fall-guy for Indy’s poor showing was Mora, who was fired by Polian. In his place stepped Tony Dungy, also recently fired. The former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head man promised to bring in simpler schemes and a more committed approach to the defense. To underscore Indy’s new attitude, the team grabbed Dwight Freeney and Larry Tripplett in the draft and signed cornerback Walt Harris. Peyton also welcomed a few fresh faces—receiver Qadry Ismail was added at receiver, and James returned from his knee injury.
Dungy’s presence had an immediate impact. The Colts broke from the gate with three consecutive victories in 2002.By mid-season, however, Indy’s record stood at 4-4. Still, that was still good enough for a first-place tie with the Titans in the AFC South.
The Colts regained their momentum with a 35-13 upset of the Eagles in Philadelphia. Peyton was awesome in the win, throwing three TDs and producing the second perfect QB rating (158.3) of his career. Two weeks later, Indianapolis corralled the Broncos in Denver for a dramatic 23-20 OT victory on a field goal by Mike Vanderjagt. Peyton’s poise late in the contest was crucial to Indy’s effort.
Though they had the division title in their sights, the Colts stumbled down the stretch, but managed to hang on to a playoff spot. Unfortunately, they showednothing against the New York Jets. When the final gun sounded on the 41-0 shellacking, Peyton felt the heat.
His final stats (4,200 yards, 27 TDs and 88.8 rating) were excellent—particularly given the fact that James was only a shadow of himself for most of the year. Yet Peyton was pegged as a guy who couldn’t win in the playoffs. Even Vanderjagt jumped on bandwagon, criticizing his quarterback and coach in an interview on Canadian television. That was too much for Peyton to take. On the sidelines in Hawaii for the Pro Bowl, he called his teammate an “idiot kicker.” Vanderjagt later apologized for his remarks.
That controversy abated, the Colts moved into the 2003 season full of optimism. The team was now comfortable in Dungy’s system, and several key additions bolstered the lineup. On defense, rookie Mike Doss was installed as a starter, while second-year linebacker David Thornton was given more freedom and responsibility. The offense looked for help along the line from two draft choices, tight end Dallas Clark and right tackle Steve Sciullo. The health of James, however, remained a pressing question. If he could approach his former Pro Bowl form, Indy would again be among the league’s most lethal offenses.
In the first three weeks of the year, the Colts showed they could win in any style. First they beat the Cleveland Browns 9-6 in a defensive struggle. Then they leveled the Titans, 33-7. The following Sunday Indy blew open a tight one against the Jacksonville Jaguars for a 23-13 victory.
To this point in the year, Peyton was solid, but hardly spectacular—which was actually welcome news. The Colts were learning that they didn’t have to rely solely on their quarterback to win games. That didn't mean they didn't need him. This was apparent on the last Sunday in September when Peyton burned the New Orleans Saints for six touchdown passes in a 55-21 rout at the Superdome. In all, he completed 20 of 25 attempts for 314 yards and registered the third perfect QB rating of his career.
The next week, on Monday Night Football in Tampa, Peyton spearheaded a startling comeback victory over the defending Super Bowl champs. Trailing the Bucs by 21 points with less than four minutes left in the contest, the Colts charged back to tie the score, then won in overtime on a field goal by Vanderjagt. Peyton threw for nearly 400 yards and two touchdowns in the stunner (which happened to come on Dungy’s birthday). Some in the media began touting him as an MVP candidate.
Peyton did little to quiet that talk. Through November, the Colts were 9-3. James was rounding into shape, and the defense was playing a more physical brand of football. Peyton, however, was the most intriguing story in Indianapolis. Even though the team had just dropped a tough one to New England, he finally solved Bill Belichick and the Patriots, passing for four scores in the 38-35 defeat.
A week later the Colts
held on for a win over the Titans—a match-up that many believed
would determine league MVP honors. Tennessee’s Steve McNair having
a great campaign, making him and Peyton the front-runners for the award.
Peyton put an exclamation point on his candidacy the following Sunday
with five TD tosses in a 38-7 laugher over the Atlanta Falcons. Though
Indy split its last two contests, the club had given itself enough breathing
room to claim the AFC South crown.
As the Colts prepared for their opening-round tilt versus Denver, they learned that Peyton and McNair had been voted co-MVPs. The news pumped up everyone on the team. Against the Broncos in the RCA Dome, Indianapolis put on a clinic. The Colts built a 28-point lead at the half, as Peyton hit on 16 of 18 passes for more than 300 yards. He ended the day with his second perfect QB rating of the season, as Indy cruised 41-10. Afterwards, his face expressed equal parts relief and satisfaction—he finally had a playoff win.
With the monkey off their back, the Colts flew to Kansas City thinking upset. The Chiefs had started the season as the AFC favorite to go to the Super Bowl, but a suspect defense was exposed by year’s end. Peyton and his mates attacked KC from the opening kickoff, winning 38-31. James was impressive with 126 yards and two TDs, but Peyton again stole the headlines. With 304 yards and three touchdowns, he was almost as good as he had been against Denver.
Indy’s bubble burst in the AFC Championship Game in New England. Peyton—whose battle of wits with Belichick and his defensive coordinators left him on the short end of the score once again—accepted the blame for the 24-14 loss. The Patriots bedeviled him with disguised coverages, but he wasn’t at his best, either. In his most disappointing performance of the year, Peyton threw four interceptions.
Peyton looked forward to avenging the playoff loss in Week 1 of the 2004 campaign, as the Colts returned to face the Pats in a rematch of the AFC title game. Again, Belichick & Co. found a way to keep Peyton under wraps. New England dared Indy to run the ball, which took prescious time off the clock. Meanwhile, the Patriots exploited Dungy's spotty defense. In the end, it was another defeat for Peyton against his nemesis.
One stat understandably overlooked after the contest was Peyton's 256 passing yards, which put him over 25,000 for his career. He reached the plateau in his 95th game—making him the second fastest to this mark behind Dan Marino. It would not be the last time on the season that a comparison between the two would be drawn.
Eager to avoid an 0-2 start, the Colts traveled to Tennessee and won 31-17. The Titans kept Peyton off the field for much of the first half, limiting him to just 84 yards passing. But Indy began to gain its rhythm in the third quarter. When Peyton connected with Reggie Wayne for a score, the Colts were on their way to an impressive comeback victory.
By mid-season, however, the Colts still had not put it all together. At 5-3, a playoff spot was no certainty. The defense was the primary problem. Outside of Freeney, who was enjoying all All-Pro campaign, Dungy couldn't coax a consistent performance from his troops. This placed even more pressure on Peyton, who was up to the challene. After a 31-28 win over the Minnesota Vikings, he had a league-best 26 touchdowns passes against just three picks.
Peyton was now on pace to break Marino’s record of 48 TDs—a mark once considered by many to be untouchable. There was no real secret to his success. Peyton was using his entire receiving corps—Wayne matured into one of the NFL's toughest matchups, Brandon Stokely continued his development, and Harrison was Harrison. With James providing a threat out of the backfield, the Colts were almost impossible to defend.
In one five-game span in the season's second half, Peyton threw for 24 touchdowns and had an average passer rating of 126.6. In a 41-9 dismantling of the Detroit Lions, he tossed six TDs in less than three quarters. Afterwards, with reporters clamoring for headline-making quotes, Peyton deflected the attention. The best he could muster was that he wanted to help Indy "keep winning."
Peyton moved closer to Marino’s mark in a 20-10 victory over Baltimore—the Colts’ seventh win in a row. Now with a comfortable lead in the AFC South, Indy fans turned an eye toward the playoffs, though their main focus remained on Peyton. As the Colts prepared for the Chargers the day after Christmas, his TD total stood at 47. For the first time all year, Peyton appeared tense.
Without a touchdown pass at halftime, Peyton finally solved the San Diego defense in the third, hitting running back James Mungro on a short scoring toss. He and Marino were even in the record books. The soldout RCA Dome (minus Peyton's parents, who had yet to arrive because of a snow storm) exploded in applause.
But the Chargers quited the crowd with a touchdown that gave them a 16-point lead. The Colts responded emphatically. First, Domonic Rhodes returned a kickoff 88 yards for a score. Then Peyton led an 80-yard drive capped by his 49th touchdown pass, a 21-yarder Stokley. Archie and Olivia—finally on hand, though still a little chilly—joined the raucous celebration. Intent on the battle at hand, Peyton quickly lined up the Colts for a two-point conversion, which was converted by James. In overtime, Vanderjagt nailed a 30-yard field goal for the win.
Peyton was all smiles afterward. He admitted that surpassing Marino's was of great significance to him, though mostly because he did it in a victory.
Winners of eight of their last nine, the Colts entered the playoffs with high hopes. Thanks to Freeney, the team had a difference maker on defense. On the other side of the ball, there was no club in the league that could match Indy's scoring output. The Colts relied on this formula in their postseason opener, a 49-24 blowout of the Broncos. Peyton was fantastic, completing 27 of 33 passes for 458 yards passing, four TDs and a passer rating of 145.7. His 360 yards passing in the first half were the most since the NFL and AFL had merged in 1970.
But as in years past, the Colts were again derailed by the Pats on their road to the Super Bowl. Peyton fell to 0-7 in Foxboro, and his numbers were reminiscent of earlier efforts in New England. He hit on 27 attempts, but for only 230 yards, and the Colts never found the endzone. Peyton didn't get much help, either. His receivers dropped several passes early, setting the tone in the 20-3 defeat.
It was a hard way to go out for Peyton, who was all too accustomed to losing the "big one." His '04 campaign was historic in so many ways. Besides the obvious achievements—49 TDs and a 121.1 passer rating—Peyton was voted league MVP for the second straight year, earned recognition as the AP Offensive Player of the Year, and was also the only unanimous pick to the NFL All-Pro Team. For good measure, he finished second to Lance Armstrong for AP Male Athlete of the Year.
The 2005 season started with a bit of concern, as Indy dropped all of its preseason games. The team immediately reversed itself, powering through the early part of its schedule. Peyton was brilliant as expected. The big news was the consistently solid performance of the Colt defense. Early in the year it ranked among the league’s stingiest. Later in the season, it made key takeaways in games when Manning & Co. were not firing on all cylinders.
Of course, these games were few and far between. In a Monday Night game against the St. Louis Rams, the Colts erased a 17–0 deficit and won 45–28, as Peyton and Harrison surpassed Steve Young and Jerry Rice as history’s greatest touchdown duo. In early November, the Colts sent a message to the Patriots with a 40–21 pasting in another Monday Night contest. Two weeks later, they beat up on the Cincinnati Bengals 45–37 for their 10th straight victory.
The Colts ran their record to 13–0 and clinched the division before they fell to the Chargers, 26–17. They lost their next one when coach Dungy was attending the funeral of his son, who had committed suicide. Indy finished with a conference-best record of 14–2.
Unfortunately, the playoffs brought disappointment to Peyton and the Colts once again. In their game with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the defense allowed three early touchdowns, as Indy fell behind 21–3. The D tightened up in the second half and Peyton brought the Colts back to 21–18. He was aided by a blown call on an interception by Troy Polamalu. Late in the game, the Steelers had a chance to put the Colts away. But as Jerome Bettis tried to pound one into the end zone, the ball was knocked loose. Nick Harper, a lightning fast defensive back, scooped it up and seemed headed for the winning touchdown, before Ben Roethlisberger made a diving tackle. The Colts had to settle for a game-tying field goal attempt from 46 yards. When Vanderjagt's kick drifted wide right, the Colts were done. Peyton received some criticism for his decision-making on Indy's last drive. Indy could have moved into easy field-goal range had he managed the clock better.
Peyton’s final '05 numbers were superb, though short of his record-smashing the year before. He threw for 3,747 yards and 28 TDs, and had a triple-digit passer rating for the second time in his pro career. Peyton collected some hardware after the year, but almost immediately his focus was on the 2006 season. The Colts had cut loose James, with plans to work rookie Joseph Addai into the mix. He would surpass 1,000 yards despite not starting a single game.
The Colts started fast again, winning their first nine games. With the offense running smoothly, the defense once again fell under intense scrutiny. Injuries eroded its depth, and the addition of Booger McFarland proved only marginally effective. Indy couldn't stop the run, and when their opponents realized it, the Colts were almost helpless. They lost three of their next four, as well as their grip on a playoff bye. It took a Week 15 Monday Night win over the Bengals—in which the now-healthy defense finally answered the call—before Indy could nail down the AFC South title.
Peyton finished the season with 4,397 passing yards and 31 touchdowns to go with a 101.0 rating. He threw at least one TD pass in all but one of the season’s 16 games.
In his Wild Card matchup with the Chiefs, Peyton took what the Kansas City defense gave him, completing 30 passes, most of them underneath the coverage. Though he was picked off three times, it hardly mattered, as the defense smothered Kansas City in a 23–8 win. The Chiefs didn't make their first first down until the second half.
Next up were the Ravens, and the Indianapolis defense came through again, holding Baltimore to just six points. Peyton was unable to put the Colts in the end zone, but he got the team’s new kicker, Adam Vinatieri, close enough to knock five field goals through the uprights. The Colts advanced to the AFC title game with 15–6 win.
Once again, the Patriots stood between Peyton and his first Super Bowl. A full house at the RCA Dome watched in stunned silence New England took a quick 14–3 lead, then made it 21–3 on an interception return for a touchdown by Asante Samuel, who stepped in front of a sideline pass from Peyton to Harrison. No team had ever erased an 18-point deficit in a conference championship. It was up to Peyton to make a little history.
The Colts managed a field goal in the second quarter to cut into the deficit, but coach Dungy entered a deflated lockerroom at the half. A pep talk and some key adjustments got the Colts back on track, and slowly they began to creep back into the game.
Disguising their zone defense to look like man-to-man, the Patriots had rattled Peyton. But when the Colts rearranged their receivers, moving Wayne into the slot and Clark outside, New England was forced to use a coverage scheme that left the middle open. Peyton went to town, connecting with Clark on huge plays time and again.
The Colts scored twice in the third period, with Peyton running the ball in himself and throwing a short pass to Dan Klecko, who was moonlighting as a receiver. Peyton followed with a two-point conversion to Harrison to knot the score at 21 apiece.
With the slate wiped clean, Peyton and Tom Brady turned the game into one of the most exciting days in memory. The Pats scored on a short pass from to Jabar Gaffney. Peyton answered with a long drive of his own. Disaster nearly struck when Dominic Rhodes coughed up the football at the goal line, but center Jeff Saturday fell on i in the end zone tie the score at 28-28.
The teams traded field goals, before New England added another three-pointer to go ahead 34-31 with 3:49 left on the clock. After an exchange of punts, Peyton got the ball on his own 20 with just over two minutes remaining. He bookended a 32-yard gem to little-used Bryan Fletcher with a pair of pinpoint passes to Wayne, and the Colts were in business on New England’s 11-yard-line. Two carries by Addai set up a third and two at the three. The Pats typically blitzed on plays like this, but Peyton guessed that they wouldn’t. He called a third straight handoff to Addai, who barreled up the middle for an easy score. An interception of Brady sealed the deal at 38–34 and the Colts were in the Super Bowl for the first time since the team rolled into Indianapolis.
An interception also sealed the deal in Super Bowl XLI versus the Chicago Bears. Kelvin Hayden's fourth-quarter pick of Rex Grossman and subsequent 56-yeard return for a TD gave the Colts the breathing room they needed in their 29-17 win. Peyton, who earned MVP honors after completing 25 of 38 passes for 247 yards and a touchdown, looked like a man whose reprieve from the Governor came at the same time he realized he was holding the winning lottery ticket.
Not that the victory was pretty. Fourteen seconds into the game, the Colts found themselves trailing 7-0 after Devin Hester returned the opening kickoff 92 yards for a score. Then the rains came, soaking the field, the fans, the players and, most important, the ball. Peyton threw an interception of Indy's first possession, and the teams combined for six more turnovers the rest of the way. The Colts botched an extra-point—after a beautiful 53-yard TD pass from Peyton to Wayne—and Vinatieri also missed a chip shot at the end of the first half.
Still, against an aggressive Chicago defense that thrived on forcing mistakes, Peyton managed the game expertly. He took what the Bears gave him and did an especially good job of changing tempo with his backfield duo of Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes. Togther, the pair rushed for 190 yards and caught 11 passes for 74 yards. At midfield after the contest, Peyton acknowledged that Indy's win was a total team effort.
The sports world's oldest cliche says there's nothing mroe difficult than repeating as champions. Peyton learned this lesson firsthand in 2007. The Colts faced what seemed like a do-or-die battle every week. They won their first seven games, including impressive victories at Jacksonville and Carolina. But back-to-back losses to the Patriots and Chargers showed that Indy was far from a perfect team. Peyton was uncharacteristically bad against San Diego, throwing six interceptions.
The Colts finished the season at 13-3, and Peyton enjoyed another Pro Bowl season. He topped 4,000 passing yards for the eighth time and matched his 2006 total of 31 touchdowns. Indianapolis headed into the playoffs with a bye in the first round but caught a tough matchup in its Divisional Game against the Chargers. In the second half, San Diego exploited the Colts' banged up defense. Even when Billy Volek replaced an injured Philip Rivers late in the contest, Indy was helpless to stop the Chargers' passing game. The Colts lost 28-21.
Heading into the 2008 campaign, the question on everyone's mind was whether Peyton's streak of 174 consecutive starts would finally end. Over the summer, he felt burning in his left knee and was diagnosed with an infected bursa sac, which he had removed. Typical recovery time was four to six weeks. Of course, no one was really surprised when Peyton was under center for the’ Colts opener against the Bears. What did come as a shock was Indy's 29-13 loss.
After years of unprecedented success, Peyton and the Colts looked vulnerable. The week after falling to the Bears, Indianapolis dug itself a 15-0 hole against the Vikings. Peyton rallied his team to a win over Minnesota, thanks to a 47-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri. The Colts averted their first 0–2 start since Peyton’s rookie season.
But in Week 3 Indy was not so lucky. Peyton threw two interceptions against the Jaguars, one of which was returned for a touchdown by Rashean Mathis. The Colts lost, 23-21. By the end of October, Indianaplois languished at 3-4.
Peyton finally got the Colts going in November. They ran the table, starting with a victory over the Patriots at home and followed by a road win in Pittsburgh. In Week 15, the Colts faced the winless Lions. Detroit, however, kep the game close. Peyton led Indy to 10 points in the fourth quarter for a 31-21 victory. It was the team’s 10th victory of the year and seventh in a row. No other team in NFL history had posted seven-game winning streaks in five consecutive seasons.
With the Colts needing a win to clinch the fifth seed in the playoffs, Peyton put on a show in a rematch with the Jaguars four days later on Thursday Night Football. He completed his first 17 passes of the game, but Indy was still on the wrong side of a 24-14 score to start the fourth quarter. Peyton would not be denied. The Colts exploded for 17 unanswered points for a 31-24 win. Peyton completed 29 of 34 passes for 364 yards and three TDs. With the victory, Indianapolis tied an NFL record by winning three games in a season in which they trailed by at least 14 points.
The Colts won in Week 16 against the Titans, who had already sewn up the AFC South. In their Wild Card game against the Chargers, Indy opened the scoring with a Joseph Addai touchdown. Down14–10 at the half, the Colts seemed to regain the momentum in the third quarter after Peyton hooked up with Reggie Wayne on a 72-yard TD strike. But San Diego forced overtime when Nate Kaeding booted a short field goal in the fourth quarter. The Chargers won the coin flip, and Peyton never got on the field. Philip Rivers marched his club down the field, and Darren Sproles ended the contest with a 22-yard touchdown.
Payton completed his 11th NFL season with 4,002 passing yards—his ninth time reaching that plateau. He threw for 27 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions. He was named NFL MVP for the third time. The only other quarterback to claim that hardware three times was Brett Favre.
Peyton would capture his fourth MVP trophy in 2009. With new head coach Jim Caldwell—Peyton’s quarterback coach since 2002—he led the Colts to 14 straight wins to begin the year. He threw for 300 yards in the team’s first two victories, both of which went down to the wire. Peyton topped 300 yards again a week later, the 50th time in his career that he reached that mark. He made it five straight 300-yard games in easy wins over the Seahawks and Titans.
In Week 7 against the sad-sack Rams, Peyton engineered a 42–6 win in St. Louis. With the victory, the Colts established a new franchise record for consecutive road wins—seven dating back to the previous season. A week later against the 49ers, Indy won 14–12 on a dramatic TD pass, by Addai! Peyton didn't make a scoring connection in this game, ending a personal 10-game streak.
Many experts were predicting an end to the team’s perfect season in Week 8 against the Texans. Houston played hard and raced to an early lead. But the Colts came roaring back for a 20–17 victory. It was the team’s 17th regular-season win in a row, which established a new NFL mark. Peyton also became the first quarterback in history to surpass 40,000 passing yards in a decade.
Six weeks later, Peyton was dazzling in a 35–31 win over the Jaguars. The victory ran the Colts' record to 14–0. With the Jets and Bills standing betwen them and a perfect season—but with the division wrapped up—Caldwell faced a tough call. Should he rest his starters or go for a perfect season?
The rookie coach took the more conservative path and announced that he would play his starters for the first half against the Jets. During those 30 minutes, Peyton became the youngest quarterback in NFL history to surpass 50,000 passing yards. He left the game in the third quarter with a 15–10 lead. The Jets scored the final 19 points to win by two touchdowns. The following week in Buffalo, Caldwell played Peyton for three series to keep him sharp, and then pulled him. The Bills won 30–7.
Peyton finished the year with an even 4,500 passing yards, 33 touchdowns, and a career-best 68.6 completion percentage. He was a no-brainer pick as the NFL’s top player.
The Colts faced the Ravens in their first playoff game. Peyton had beaten Baltimore seven times in a row and made it eight with a pair of first-half touchdown tosses. Indianapolis cruised to 20–3 victory. Caldwell looked like genius.
The Colts were equally impressive against the surprising Jets in the AFC Championship. New York confused Peyton early in the contest behind Rex Ryan’s unpredicatble blitzes. Jets fans rejoiced when their team took a 17–6 lead late in the second quarter, but Peyton engineered a textbook scoring drive before the half. The momentum had shifted. The Indianaplis defense shut down New York’s running game for the final 30 minutes, and Peyton picked apart the Jets’ secondary. Indy won 30–17 win and earned their second trip to the Super Bowl in three seasons. Peyton racked up his seventh 300-yard passing game to set a new postseason record.
Indy’s opponent in the big game would be Drew Brees and the high-flying Saints. New Orleans had earned its first trip to the Super Bowl on the strength of one of the league’s best offenses. Many fans and experts boiled down the contest to a showdown between Peyton and Brees, arguably the two top quarterbacks in the NFL.
Super Bowl XLIV started the way that Peyton and the Colts expected, but it hardly ended that way. Indianapolis chugged to a 10-0 lead. The offense was moving the ball in workmanlike fashion. The running game was clicking, and Peyton was able to buy time when he needed it and find open receivers.
But the Indy offense spent much of the second quarter atchign from the sidelines. Bree got into rhythm, and the Saints marched down the field. Though they converted just two field goals, the momentum had shifted.
In the second half, New Orleans dominated. Still, down 24-17, Indy had a chance to tie the game in the fourth quarter. That's when Peyton made the most uncharacteristic of mistakes. After guiding the Colts deep into New Orleans territory, he rushed a pass to Wayne in the face of a blitz. Cornerback Tracy Porter read the play, broke on the ball before Wayne, and brought back the interception 74 yards for a touchdown. The game was over. The Colts lost, 31-17.
The loss was a nasty pill for Peyton to swallow. It recalled memories of when he was the quarterback who couldn’t win the big one. Peyton and his fans had another disappointment to begin the 2010 season, when they were defeated by the up-and-coming Texans on opening day. In that game, Peyton set new personal highs with 40 completions and 57 attempts. He threw for three touchdowns in the 34–24 loss to Houston. Order was restored the following week, when Peyton outgunned Eli in a Monday Night Football game against the Giants that the press dubbed “The Manning Bowl.” Peyton threw for three TDs against New York in the 38–14 win.
The rest of the year was marked by inconsistency by the Colts. After 12 games, they were a .500 team. Fortunately, they ran the table to finish 106 and clinch the AFC South with a win over the Jaguars in Week 15. Peyton finished the year with an NFL-record 450 completions for 4,700 yards and 33 touchdowns. It marked the fifth year in a row Peyton surpassed 4,000 passing yards. The last game of the year was Peyton’s 208th consecutive start, which broke Gene Upshaw’s NFL record.
In the opening round of the 2010 playoffs, the Colts faced the Jets again. This time, the outcome was different. In a taut defensive battle, the Colts seemed to gain the upper hand when they booted the go-ahead field goal with just over two minutes left. But Mark Sanchez guided New York down the field, and the= Jets won the game as time ran out with a field goal of their own, 17–16.
Despite this early exit, the Colts were committed to Peyton and proved it by putting the franchise tag on him in February. Over the summer, they worked out a $90 million extension covering five years. At that point, Peyton seemed to be on track to recover from a May operation on his neck. (When a scandal involving a bounty system by the Saints was uncovered in early 2012, many wondered whether Peyton’s injury was sustained on a hit by the New Orleans defense that was meant to put him on the sidelins.)
By the end of training camp, something clearly wasn’t right. The team announced on September 7th that he would miss the season, and the next day Peyton underwent a procedure to fuse a vertebra. Peyton began tossing the football again in December and claimed he was game-ready, but the Colts were well on their way to a 2–14 season, so it made no sense to activate him.
Indy’s awful record meant the Colts would have the first pick in the 2012 draft. As luck would have it, that pick was almost certain to be Stanford’s Andrew Luck—a quarterback who, by most accounts, was ready to step in and hold his own in the NFL. That put Indianapolis in an interesting position. The Coltscould keep Peyton and trade the pick. They could draft Luck and keep Peyton to mentor him. Or they could release Peyton before the remainder of his contract kicked in and take their chances with the young passer. Each option was fraught with uncertainty. Ultimately, as expected, the Colts chose the option that had the least financial risk and bid Peyton adieu. Owner Jim Irsay said no Colt would ever wear #18 again.
Although his health was anything but certain, Peyton had plenty of suitors. The best fit seemed to be Denver, a team with an excellent defense and an unsettled quarterback situation. Sure enough, Peyton became a Bronco in March, signing a five-year contract that signaled the end of Tim Tebow’s career in Denver. The following day, he was traded to the Jets.
One question was on everyone’s mind heading into 2012: How effective could Peyton be? If the nerves in his right shoulder and arm weren’t 100%, his effectiveness as a passer would be greatly diminished. He answered that question on the first evening of the Broncos season, completing 19 of 26 passes for two touchdowns in a 31–19 win. One of Payton’s two scoring passes—a 71-yard strike to his soon-to-be favorite receiver, Demaryius Thomas—was the 400th of his career.
Peyton continued to play well, but the Denver defense got off to a slow start and the Broncos dropped three of the next four games. At 2–3, no one was panicking, however. Peyton tossed three TD passes in the second half of a 35–24 victory against the Chargers in San Diego to even the team’s record. After a bye week, the Broncos were literally unbeatable, winning their final 10 games. Only one opponent came within a touchdown of Denver during that amazing run.
Peyton had nine three-touchdown games in 2012, and also topped 300 yards nine times. He finished the year with 4,659 yards and 37 touchdowns against just 11 interceptions. He led the NFL with a 68.6 completion percentage. His best game was the finale against Kansas City. Peyton completed 23 of 29 passes for 304 yards and three touchdowns in a 38–3 thumping of the hapless Chiefs. Two weeks earlier, Peyton and the Broncos had beaten the Ravens in Baltimore. That gave them a huge boost when they faced them again in the playoffs, in Denver.
The Ravens matched the Broncos touchdown-for-touchdown in an exciting game. With the score tied 28–28 in the fourth quarter, Peyton hit Thomas with a scoring pass to give Denver a 35–28 lead with seven minutes left. The Ravens drove down the field to the 31 yard line. On a 4th down play, Mike Adams broke up a Joe Flacco pass and the Broncos took over on downs. Peyton was unable to run out the clock, so Denver punted with just over a minute left. Then disaster sgruck. From his own 30 yard line, Joe Flacco lofted a long pass to Jacoby Jones. A blown coverage enabled Jones to race unmolested for the game-tying touchdown. Near the end of the first overtime period, Peyton threw an interception. The Ravens moved into field goal range and Justin Tuicker ended the game with a 47-yard field goal.
Aside from the disappointing conclusion to the 2012 season, Peyton could hardly have enjoyed a better year. He was named Comeback Player of the Year, First Team All-Pro, and finished second to Adrian Peterson in the MVP voting.
Fully recovered and supremely confident in 2013, Peyton went on a record-setting touchdown binge. He opened the season with a record-tying seven-TD game against the Ravens, gaining some small level of revenge. He followed that with two more touchdowns in a 41–23 win over Eli and the Giants in the Meadowlands, and threw 13 more in the next four contests, all wins. The Broncos lost their next game, against the Colts, but dropped only two more on their way to another 13–3 season and the division crown.
The Denver passing attack only got better in the second half. In all, Peyton notched five 4-TD games and a 5-TD game. His final total of 55 touchdowns and 5,477 passing yards obliterated the NFL records. Peyton won every honor in sight, including MVP and Sports Illustrated Player of the Year.
In the playoffs, Peyton led the Broncos to victories over the Chargers and Patriots to win the AFC Championship. Denver was in control the whole way against San Diego in a 24–17 win. In the victory over New England, Peyton threw for 400 yards. Beating Tom Brady in convincing fashion felt great.
In Super Bowl XLVIII against the Seattle Seahawks, Peyton faced one of football's finest pass defenses. In the midst of a brutal winter (the game was played outdoors in New Jersey at MetLife Stadium) the Super Bowl actually caught a break and the temperature was in the 40s. That was the last break Denver got in the game, however. After receiving the opening kickoff, the Broncos muffed the first play from scrimmage when Peyton called an audible at the line and shifted from shotgun to behind center. Manny Ramirez did not hear the call and snapped the ball passed Peyton and into the end x=zone, where Knowshon Moreno recovered it for a Seattle Safety. Moments later, the Seahawks added a field goal to make the score 5–0. After a three-and-out for Denver, Steve Hauschka booted another field goal to make the score 8–0. Peyton threw an interception on the Broncos next possession and Seattle scored soon after to run the deficit to 15–0.
The Broncos never recovered. Their defense could not contain Russell Wilson and their special teams gave up big plays at the worst possible moments. Peyton finished the day with a record 34 completions for 280 yards. Denver's only scoring play came on a short pass to Demaryius Thomas at the end of the third quarter. Thomas had 13 catches to set a new Super Bowl record. The final was an embarrassing 43–8.
Despite this result, the Broncos opened the 2014 campaign as odds-on favorites to repeat as AFC champs. Their Week 3 rematch with the Seahawks was an overtime thriller, but Seattle came out on top 26–20. Denver pretty much controlled the remainder of their early-season games, including impressive wins over the Chiefs and 49ers. In the San Francisco game, Peyton threw four touchdowns to surpass Brett Favre's career mark of 508. When Peyton went to retrieve the historic 509th ball, Demaryius Thomas (who scored the TD) tossed it over his head to Emmanuel Sanders, who lobbed it over to Wes Welker on the sidelines. When Peyton moved toward Welker, he threw it back to Sanders, who shoveled it off to tight end Julius Thomas. After he got it that they were playing keep-away, he started laughing and was presented with the ball.
Peyton had another spectacular season, throwing for 4,727 yards and 39 touchdowns, with just 15 interceptions. Thomas, meanwhile, set a new team record with 1,619 receiving yards. All this came as the offense transitioned to a more run-oriented attack, led by C.J. Anderson. The Broncos went 12–4 and were never seriously challenged in their division.
The Broncos held the #2 spot in the AFC Playoffs, and faced Andrew Luck and the Colts after a first-round bye. Denver had a spotless record at home, making them odds-on favorites to advance to the conference championship. Luck was able to grind out scoring drives against the Denver defense, but Peyton had less success against Indianapolis. His first-quarter scoring pass to Thomas was the only touchdown of the day, and the Broncos fell 24–13.
Over the summer, the Broncos continued their transition to a run-first West Coast offense and focused their resources on building a swift, attacking defense. Peyton entered the 2015 season knowing that he would not be counted upon to win every game. His job was to manage the offense, build leads and let the defense close things out. John Fox left the team as head coach to make way for Gary Kubiak. Wade Phillips, out of football the previous season, came in and put the finishing touches on what would be the NFLs #1 defense.
The Broncos won their first eight games before losing to the Colts 27–24 in early November. However, Peyton was beginning to show his age. He lacked the old zip on many of his passes, and a foot injury eventually sidelined him in the second half. Brock Osweiler filled in until Week 17, when Peyton came off the bench in the second half and led a 27–20 comeback victory over the Chargers that clinched the #1 seed in the playoffs. For the year, Peyton threw for just 2,249 yards and 9 touchdowns, and had 17 interceptions. It was his worst season statistically since his rookie year.
With many whispering that this would be Peyton’s final postseason, the Broncos faced the Steelers in the second round. Denver trailed 13–12 in the fourth quarter of a rugged defensive battle. DeMarcus Ware recovered a fumble to halt a Pittsburg scoring drive, and Peyton marched the team down the field for a touchdown and two-point conversion to make the score 20–13. The two teams traded late field goals as the Broncos won 32–16. Peyton completed 21 of 37 passes during the game.
The AFC Championship was a Brady-Manning classic. Phillips’s defense stymied the Patriots time and again, while Peyton led his team to a 17–9 halftime lead. With the score 20–12, the Broncos made two key 4th down stops in the fourth quarter to halt New England drives. Even so, Brady found Rob Gronkowski in the end zone with 1:40 left to make the score 20–18, but his pass for a two-point conversion was picked off by Bradley Roby to seal the victory.
Super Bowl 50 gave Peyton the perfect opportunity to go out on top. The Broncos were underdogs to Cam Newton and the young Carolina Panthers, but Carolina hadn’t faced a swarming defense like Denver’s. Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and Malik Jackson brought pressure on the quarterback every play. Peyton moved the ball well but could not get into the end zone, settling for three field goals. Miller’s strip tackle of Newton produced the only touchdown for the Broncos until the fourth quarter, when another Newton fumble gave Denver the ball on the 4 yard line. C.J. Anderson punched it in and Peyton hit Bennie Fowler for a two-point conversion to make the final score 24–10.
PEYTON THE PLAYER
Peyton’s physical skills are impressive but not overwhelming. His 6-5, 230-pound frame is a definite asset. Before the neck injury, Peyton was the most durable quarterback ever to set foot on the gridiron. It helped that he has never had to absorb a great deal of punishment. That was due in part to a steady offensive line but also to his ability to read defenses and get rid of the ball quickly.
Peyton’s arm strength was above average until the neck injury, while his accuracy is off the charts. He throws his share of wobblers, but most of his passes find their targets between the numbers and in stride. The touch he puts on the ball makes him a receiver’s best friend.
Peyton won’t beat anyone in a sprint, but his pocket presence is excellent. This allows him to avoid sacks and buy extra time to let a receiver work his way open. Despite his lack of speed, Peyton’s footwork is textbook. So are his play fakes. Few quarterbacks in the game’s history have been able to fool defenses like he can.
Peyton is regarded as a strong leader. He inspires teammates through deed and word. His work ethic is unparalleled, and he makes his teammates better. As John Elway put it, he “raises all boats.” Peyton is as intense as they come. He’s also not afraid to get into a teammate’s face and demand his best effort. Some guys can’t get away with such tactics. Peyton can.
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