At age 39, Manning is going back to the Super Bowl one more time.
January 24, 2016
Quarterback Peyton Manning (18) of the Denver Broncos looks to the crowd with his father Archie Manning after the Broncos defeated the Patriots 20 to 18 winning the AFC championship. The Broncos played the Patriots in the AFC championship game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver on Jan. 24, 2016. (John Leyba, The Denver Post)
Walking gingerly with the football-scarred gait of an old quarterback, Archie Manning pulled two leather gloves from his coat pocket.
"On Jan. 1, I made a resolution not to bite my fingernails," he told me Sunday after the Broncos beat New England 20-18 in an AFC championship game so tense, everybody in Colorado had to be reminded to breathe. "So I wore these gloves the whole game."
Then the man Peyton Manning fondly calls Daddy paused in his tracks outside the Denver locker room, curled his fingers and inspected the nails.
"And I still got 'em," Archie Manning declared, a grin erasing every line from his 66-year-old face. "So I guess these gloves worked."
Let chroniclers of football history record the big moments of an instant classic, because it doesn't get any better than this: The final minutes of the fourth quarter were a confrontation between Tom Brady, the most-decorated quarterback of his generation, and the Denver defense, the NFL's immovable force of the moment.
The Broncos vanquished the defending league champions only when cornerback Bradley Roby intercepted a pass by New England's Tom Brady that could have tied the score with a two-point conversion with a scant 12 seconds remaining.
But here's all the emotional truth you really need to know: This was a victory dedicated to every father and mother who have ever stood on the sideline and prayed a silly game would not break their kid's heart.
Told his father was such a nervous wreck that Archie Manning couldn't watch the desperate, final two offensive thrusts by the Patriots and left his seat in Sports Authority Field at Mile High to listen on the radio alone in the hall, the reply of Denver's veteran quarterback was priceless.
"I'm sorry," Peyton Manning said. "I saw (retired Broncos tight end) Shannon Sharpe on Saturday night, and asked him to do me a favor at the game: 'When you see my parents, remind them to breathe.' "
No need to apologize. At age 39, Manning is going back to the Super Bowl one more time.
Jogging off the field after surviving the Patriots, a spent Gary Kubiak looked me in the eye and admitted, "Whew, that was a grind." And it only gets tougher from here, Coach. The Broncos will play Carolina, which routed Arizona 49-15 to win the NFC title.
Maybe fairy tales do come true. On Nov. 15, Manning was benched during a home loss to Kansas City. The five-time MVP, suffering from a torn plantar fascia in his left foot, never looked so helpless, old and washed up. Those who loved him lost sleep.
"I wasn't sure he was going to play again. I even talked to my wife about it: 'Peyton might ... he might not play again. That thing, that foot, it was killing him," Archie Manning confessed. "For him to come back from the injury? That in itself was enough, just to come back and play football again."
Manning missed six weeks, fighting doubt as Brock Osweiler took over his job. But the foot healed, and Manning finally got his shot to be the hero against San Diego, coming off the bench to lead a second-half rally that secured the top seed in the AFC on the last weekend of the regular season. It ensured this showdown against New England would be played in the Broncos' house.
"No disrespect to the team we just played," said Denver running back C.J. Anderson, who rushed for 72 yards against the Patriots. "But I bet they wished they played this game at home."
This feels like the last rodeo for Manning. He steadfastly insists on living in the moment, just as he refuses to discuss whether the Super Bowl will be the last game of his 18-year pro career. He connected early on two touchdown passes with tight end Owen Daniels against the Patriots, staking Denver to a 17-9 advantage at halftime. But down the stretch, it was Manning as game manager, leaning heavily on his defense and throwing only a dozen times for 48 yards during the game's final 30 minutes.
There are unmistakable signs, however, that this pursuit of a championship is different for Manning. It's a sentimental journey. He brought Marshall, his 4-year-old son, to the podium with him for the postgame news conference. The small boy wore an AFC championship cap three sizes too big and sang a little song, happily tagging behind his father as they walked down a long hallway to the stadium elevators.
The decision on retirement belongs to Manning alone. But this 17th showdown against Brady felt like the last time we will see him play a game in Denver, and let us pause to say: Thank you, sir.
Thanks for the 17,112 yards passing, the 140 touchdowns and the four AFC West division titles. Thanks for the humility in victory and the grace in defeat. Thanks for reminding us a sports star can do more than endorse pizzas or crack jokes on "Saturday Night Live," and also be a role model. Thanks for everything.
It was with the same, deep gratitude that Archie Manning greeted the morning sun. He knows the time to experience all the joys and anguish of his son playing football is growing short. Thinking about going out to watch Peyton try to beat the Patriots, Archie turned to Olivia, his wife, Sunday morning and said, "Hey, no matter what happens, it's been a good rodeo."
And the ride is not over.
I stopped Peyton Manning as he was leaving the stadium and told him congratulations. In response, Manning shook my hand. As he reviewed this great escape against a great team, there was the twinkle in the eye of an old quarterback playing with house money: Broncos 20, Pats 18.
Manning said, "Never a doubt, right?"
He stepped on the elevator. As the doors closed behind Manning, the red arrow was pointed up. Next stop: Super Bowl 50.
Mark Kiszla: firstname.lastname@example.org or @markkiszla