As the angst in New England simmers down in the aftermath of Wes Welker getting spurned by the Patriots, a related issue surfaces:
Will the Denver Broncos' newest offensive toy be enough to get Peyton Manning over the top again?
Manning's amazing comeback last season (he posted the second-best statistical season of his career after missing all of 2011) was obscured by the way it ended with a thud. More precisely, the latest thud of his otherwise illustrious career.
Manning is 9-11 in the playoffs, the worst record of any of the five quarterbacks in NFL history to start 20 postseason games. Brett Favre was a tad better at 13-11 (they are tied for the most playoff losses in league history), but Brady (17-7), Joe Montana (16-7) and Manning's boss, John Elway (14-8), are all better.
Now, it's not fair to call Manning anything close to a failure for that record. After all, making the playoffs 12 times in 14 years is no small feat. Favre is the only other quarterback to make it that many times and he played 20 years. Montana made it 11 times and both Brady and Dan Marino made it 10 times. Not even Elway made it to double digits.
Ultimately though, even with his Super Bowl title from the 2006 season, Manning has put together a body of work that makes it hard to call him the best to ever play the position. Among the top 10? Certainly. Among the top 5? Probably.
No. 1, 2 or even 3? Probably not. Those spots are reserved for the father (Montana), the son (Brady) and the holy spirit (Johnny Unitas), in whatever order you like.
Manning is in that next group, a situation that no doubt bugs him because, well, everything bugs him. Manning is a guy who takes every slight, every bit of indignation and uses it as fuel. Tell him that he can't do something and he works hard. Tell him that his career is in jeopardy from a neck injury and he works at a maniacal level to get back to form.
Or, in another way, tell him that something looked good at practice as he's coming back from all his neck surgeries – the way this reporter did last July at training camp – and Manning bats it away with a bit of Southern sarcasm.
"That makes me feel a lot better to know you feel that way," Manning said with a sly grin and a wink after I tried to lob a compliment his way.
And there is no doubt that Manning is taking the latest series of insults from the end of last season and using those as fuel as well. Many people called him a choker for his ugly interception that set up the game-winning field goal in the Broncos' divisional-round overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Plenty of Denver fans who still worship Tim Tebow made snide remarks about how the Broncos were really no better with Manning than they were in 2011 with Tebow (both teams lost in the playoffs' second round, although the defeats were decidedly different).
And, as much as it's obvious to anyone who watches football that the 2012 Broncos were a lot better than the 2011 version, there's a point at which the Tebowites aren't altogether wrong. Just as there is a point for the most ardent Manning fans when they can't say that their hero is the greatest of all time. There have been too many failures at critical times. Manning has led his team to the No. 1 or 2 seed five times in his career, only to lose four of those in the first game and one in the Super Bowl.
Now, he gets the advantage of stealing Tom Brady's favorite receiver, a double dose of both improving his own team and hurting his greatest rival. For now, the pressure is on the Patriots to prove that the move to let go of Welker wasn't some penurious brain fart. But soon, plenty of people are going to start looking at Manning and admiring a receiving corps that now has Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. When they're done admiring they will then start to ask a simple question:
You got enough yet, Peyton?
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