DENVER -- Archie Manning woke up Sunday and felt the need to have a little talk with his wife, Olivia, the cheerleader and homecoming queen the Ole Miss star married in 1971, right after the New Orleans Saints made him the second overall pick in the NFL draft.
Despite his considerable skills, Manning never once reached the playoffs with the Saints, and the injuries and later-life surgeries have made his limp a constant reminder of the fierce punishment he absorbed. But in the hours before the Denver Broncos faced the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, the father of two Super Bowl MVPs, one of them a middle child, Peyton, who ranks among the all-time greats, wanted to remind Olivia of just how blessed they've been.
"Whatever happens," Archie told his wife about Peyton, "it's been a good rodeo. It's been a good 18 years."
Archie grew emotional as he relayed the story in the bowels of Sports Authority Field, right after Peyton's Broncos outlasted Tom Brady's Patriots 20-18 to send the winning 39-year-old quarterback to a Super Bowl appearance that was unfathomable -- even to Peyton's family -- as recently as a few weeks ago.
The old man's eyes welled up and his voice cracked as he spoke of his appreciation for the city that took in Peyton after he was fired by the Indianapolis Colts in favor of Andrew Luck. "Ever since I used to play here," Archie said, "I'd always go home and say, 'Denver fans get it.'"
He swore he had no inside information on whether his son plans to retire -- "I promise you he hasn't talked about it, has not even brought it up," Archie said -- though he conceded the possibilities made this victory over Brady and Bill Belichick something to savor. As did that morning conversation with his dear Olivia.
Football players are taught to never reflect, to stay in the moment at all costs, and Archie's boys Peyton and Eli have made six trips to the Super Bowl by keeping that focus intact.
But Sunday morning, ol' Archie was finally ready to smell the roses for a change, ready to reminisce with Olivia about everything their middle child had experienced and overcome.
"We just had a special moment," Archie said, his voice catching again. It wasn't the last special moment of their day.
What were the odds in the middle of November that Manning would be in this surreal position? He was 5-for-20 with four interceptions and no touchdowns against Kansas City, and he was pulled from the game with a shot foot and a shot arm. He had nine touchdowns against 17 picks for the season at that point, and then the younger, bigger, stronger, more athletic Brock Osweiler ripped off three consecutive victories, including one against the unbeaten Patriots.
Just about everyone thought Osweiler had the job for keeps. The Broncos had actually started the transition to Osweiler in the offseason when they fired Manning's coach (John Fox) and coordinator (Adam Gase), asked him to accept a $10 million pay cut (Manning worked that down to a $4 million haircut instead), installed Gary Kubiak's Osweiler-friendly offense, and instructed the fading legend to sit out more practices.
Suddenly everything changed in the final regular-season game against the Chargers. Somewhat recovered from his foot injury, Manning dressed and assumed the role of Osweiler's backup. Cooper Manning, the oldest of the Manning boys, was among those who had assumed Osweiler would finish out the season. So Cooper was busy coaching his young son, Heid, in a flag football league when word came that Kubiak had actually inserted Peyton into the game.
"And I left in the middle of it," Cooper said of Heid's game, "and my son's like, 'Way to leave your team.' I said, 'It's worth it. I've got to check on baby brother to see how he's doing.' I left [Heid] high and dry."
As he stood outside the Broncos' locker room Sunday, Cooper Manning shook his head over the wonder of it all.
"I'm really, really proud of him," he said of Peyton. "He just tried to get better. It's amazing how things work out, just amazing. I'm kind of in awe of how the whole situation has unfolded, to be dinged and have a chance of maybe not playing at all the rest of the year, and then to go in there against the Chargers and turn it around and win two playoff games -- it's just hard to write that script."
The last time Peyton appeared in a Super Bowl, he was hit almost as much as Brady was hit by a Denver defense that, at least for this day, was worthy of comparison to the '85 Bears. A devastated Archie stood that day outside the losers' locker room in Eli's building in New Jersey and told ESPN.com he couldn't bear to watch what Seattle was doing to his kid.
"That's why I hate football," he said.
Nobody in the Manning family hated football on Sunday, especially the quarterback of the home team. Michael Robinson, a fullback on that Seattle team, had said on the NFL Network that he thought Manning was "done," and that Osweiler should've been playing against New England. "I think we saw the last greatness of Peyton when we beat him in the Super Bowl, to be honest with you," Robinson said.
As it turned out, Manning had at least one more half of greatness inside of him, and against the most appropriate opponent. Brady-Manning was the NFL's answer to Bill Russell-Wilt Chamberlain. Brady and Russell were the New England icons who had the championships, and Manning and Chamberlain were the non-New England icons who had the superior stats and, of course, not enough rings to show for it.
Brady had entered this game with a 22-8 postseason record and four championships, with two one-and-done exits from the playoffs. Manning entered with a 12-13 postseason record, one title and nine one-and-dones. If Peyton wasn't going to win the rivalry Sunday (Brady had that in his hip pocket for eternity with his 11-5 head-to-head record), he could surely help his legacy by beating Brady for the third time in five postseason duels, and for a third consecutive time in an AFC Championship Game.
It seemed a long shot at best, even if Brady had a 2-6 career record in Denver. At 38, Brady had aged so much better and had predicted to a friend in that famous 2014 email that he'd play another seven or eight seasons while Manning would be confined to two. Brady didn't have to endure the four neck surgeries that left Manning initially unable to throw anything but a 10-yard lob.
But with the sun out and the temperature close enough to 50 degrees, Manning showed up as the more energized player. Belichick won the coin toss and shocked everyone by electing to receive (just as he shocked everyone by electing to kick at the start of overtime in the loss to the Jets last month), and Brady couldn't generate anything on the opening drive. Manning, meanwhile, completed 4 of 6 passes for 60 yards on an 82-yard drive punctuated by his 21-yard touchdown pass to Owen Daniels, only the second scoring throw Manning had made at home all season. Immediately after Manning reverted to 2015 form near the end of the first quarter and threw a wayward ball behind the line later ruled as a fumble (courtesy of Belichick's genius challenge), the Patriots answered with their own score and appeared to settle into the game.
Stephen Gostkowski then did something he hadn't done in nine years -- missed an extra point attempt after nailing 523 in a row. The Patriots never got back that point, and after Brady's heroic throws to Rob Gronkowski on New England's final, frantic drive, they had to attempt a two-point conversion play that never had a chance.
"A nightmare scenario," Gostkowski called it.
Truth is, Brady lived the nightmare more than any Patriot, taking a beating like no quarterback has taken all season. He was never pummeled this way in the two Super Bowl losses to the Giants, and the relentless pressure forced him into the kind of mistakes he rarely makes in games so big. He threw two interceptions, or two more than his forever rival threw, and the first one to Von Miller set up Manning's second touchdown pass to Daniels, this one on a vintage Peyton high-arcer into the corner of the end zone.
In fact, Manning threw the ball most of the day like he has as his 40th birthday approaches -- as if trying to land it in a distant trash can. Though he couldn't deliver a touchdown in the second half, Manning didn't have to. He outscored and outplayed Brady, and then stood on the winners' stage with a trophy in one hand and the game ball in the other. "I would never, ever, ever underestimate [Manning] under any circumstances," Belichick had said the other day.
Now everyone fully understood why.
"There is no question this is a sweet day," Manning said in his postgame news conference, with his young son, Marshall, standing behind him and under the championship cap Peyton had planted on his head. "This was a sweet victory."
Von Miller was the best player on the field, without question, and the Denver defense defined the outcome. This day belonged to Manning, anyway. Did you see that 12-yard run on third-and-10 in the third quarter, when Manning ran (and dove forward) for 12 yards and looked like either his father, Archie, or his boss, John Elway, who scrambled and helicoptered his way to the two championships that altered his historical standing in the sport?
"I think the big thing is we've got to win it," Elway said of the Super Bowl matchup with the Carolina Panthers, "and that's going to be a tremendous add to Peyton's legacy but also the Broncos' legacy, too."
Manning will arrive in Santa Clara, California, as the oldest starting quarterback to play in a Super Bowl, replacing his man Elway. Given his age, the fallout from the Al Jazeera report, and the fact most observers thought his career ended in that dreadful Kansas City game, this date with Cam Newton is a fairly remarkable thing.
"I'm just so happy he's getting to play again," Archie said. "Being hurt is the worst side of football, but just to play again, gosh, and to help them into the No. 1 seed and then to win two playoff games. ... I didn't know if he'd play again. He fought this thing a long time, and the good Lord looked down on him. ... This is a special day."
Archie was reminded that his sons had made a half dozen trips to the big game, and he mentioned again how fortunate he felt before adding, "Let's win one more."
But win, lose or draw against Carolina, Archie and Olivia Manning already know the score. Their son Peyton doesn't need another trophy. It has already been a good rodeo, and one hell of an 18-year ride.