Peyton Manning's golden opportunity

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I've never been the biggest Peyton Manning fan.

I've long admired his dedication and the dignity with which he treats the game and its history. But even now I remain skeptical of his postseason legacy, which has never measured up to a status I conceded three years ago: Greatest Regular-Season Quarterback Ever.

Of course, for Peyton Manning, whose little brother Eli has two Super Bowl wins (over Tom Brady!) to Peyton's one (over Rex Grossman?) while Eli has also led the NFL in interceptions three times, Greatest Regular-Season Quarterback must be starting to feel like a consolation prize.

But now, the mouth of Seattle Seahawks cornerback  Richard Sherman has opened and out has flown, like a fire-breathing dragon, the greatest opportunity Peyton could have ever wished for: a Super Bowl foe who's a nine out of 10 on degree-of-difficulty scale. This challenge is much closer to the 1985 Chicago Bears than the 2006 Bears with backup-caliber Grossman at quarterback and a fifth-ranked defense. Seattle's defense is ranked No. 1 in fewest yards allowed, in interceptions (28) and in total takeaways (39).

Unlike the 1985 Bears -- the greatest defense ever -- Seattle's was built from the back end to stop what a Peyton Manning does best. Peyton is about to throw into the teeth of the Legion of Boom. The '85 Bears mostly terrorized passers before they threw. Sherman & Co. more often make QBs and receivers pay after the ball has been thrown -- with interceptions and concussions.

So, with Sherman relegating Peyton to Best Supporting Actor next week -- with the sports world hanging on Sherman's every word about how devastating Seattle's secondary can be -- the credibility of Peyton's challenge will rise by the sound bite. With Sherman's game-saving pass breakup in the NFC title game, he cinched his status as pro football's best cornerback -- precisely the kind of long, strong, headstrong corner who can match physicality and downfield speed with Peyton's favorite target, Demaryius Thomas, who's longer on speed than quickness.

Yep: For Peyton, Seattle is a IX in Super Bowl degree of difficulty.

For now, I rank him no higher on my all-time list than sixth, behind (in order) Joe Montana, Brady, John Elway, Roger Staubach and Brett Favre. After all, Peyton is only 11-11 in playoff games, with eight first-game exits -- four of those as a top-two seed playing at home after a bye. Until his two recent home wins over the San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots, Peyton had lost three straight playoff games. I'm sorry, but, by Peyton Manning standards, that's sorry.

But what if he added IX exclamation points to his regular-season record 55 touchdown passes and 5,477 passing yards by lowering the boom on the Legion of Boom in Super Bowl XLVIII and forcing Sherman to say Peyton made him look mediocre? What if Denver wins, say, 38-10 and DeMaryius catches three TD passes?

Few, if any, would say the Seahawks were frauds. Many would conclude Peyton was the greatest of the QBs with two rings (Elway, Staubach, Ben Roethlisberger, Bart Starr, Bob Griese, Jim Plunkett and Eli). Some would make the case that, in overall résumé, Peyton had eclipsed even three-ring Brady (8-8 in his past 16 playoff games and 0-2 in Super Bowls over the past nine years). Good gracious, a few might even leap to the prisoner-of-the-moment conclusion that Peyton's sensational longevity capped off by the greatest regular season ever and a Super Bowl destruction of Sherman's defense pole-vaults Peyton past (dare I say) Montana.

For sure, I would have to rethink Peyton's greatness.

Maybe I took an unfair view of Peyton from the start because he played at the University of Tennessee, archrival to my alma mater, Vanderbilt. Peyton's increasingly happy feet made me happy when he struggled against my Commodores, and I lost more respect when he lost to Florida all three times he faced the Gators.

I've been pretty good predicting the NFL success of college QBs -- with one glaring swing and miss: I said I would take Ryan Leaf over Peyton Manning. I was not alone. In fact, that was the first and last time I took to the bank what several college coaches told me: Leaf was a gunslinger who played quarterback like a linebacker and was made of tougher stuff than Peyton Manning. I obviously had no idea Leaf battled demons that soon would destroy his career.

Then again, I must admit I've always preferred my all-time great quarterbacks to play with more rifle-armed flair than Peyton ever has. Give me Elway's finger-breaking fastball and jockish swagger. Or Staubach's miracle-making fire. Or Dan Marino's arrogant rocketry. Or Favre firing a touchdown pass with every ounce of his excitable being.

From the start, Peyton played NFL quarterback as if he were a hyper chess master. He created a game above the mud-and-blood game of football, a mind game with which he could toy with superior athletes. His arm strength was pretty average, but his decision-making and release were speed of light and his accuracy deadly.

Peyton Manning made playing quarterback look as easy as driving a Buick. He rarely needed his helmet and pads. Today, he pretty much looks like the man next door who tosses around the football in the yard with the kids.

Year after year in Indianapolis, Peyton hoarded regular-season wins. Yet, despite all the weapons at his fingertips --  Marvin Harrison for 11 seasons, Reggie Wayne for 10, Dallas Clark for eight, Edgerrin James for seven -- those teams too often failed on the playoff stage against more physical teams that could turn the game back into football.

Peyton finally broke through in his ninth season, beating the Bears 29-17 in the rain in Super Bowl XLI. Peyton's team was a seven-point favorite. Degree of difficulty: four.

But give Peyton this: The real Super Bowl that season was the AFC Championship Game in Indy, in which the Colts rallied from 21-6 down against New England to win 38-34. Peyton threw for 349 yards, with one touchdown pass and one interception.

For now, that stands as Peyton's greatest postseason achievement.

Peyton's Colts, of course, lost Super Bowl XLIV to Drew Brees' New Orleans Saints 31-17 (after beating Mark Sanchez's New York Jets 30-17 in Indy for the AFC title). The Colts were a five-point favorite over a New Orleans team with the No. 1 offense but just the 25th-ranked defense. Degree of difficulty: five.

Most memorable moment: The Colts were driving to tie the score at 24 when, with 3:24 left, Peyton's pass intended for Wayne was intercepted by Tracy Porter and returned 74 yards for the game-breaking TD. Hall of … Blame?

Last season, his first in Denver, Peyton did what Peyton often does, delivering the AFC's No. 1 seed off a 13-3 regular season. And Peyton did his part to build a 35-28 lead over eventual Super Bowl champ Baltimore. But, with 31 seconds left, a 70-yard Hail Flacco TD pass forced overtime.

And in the second overtime, the Greatest Regular-Season Quarterback Ever made a shockingly poor decision, throwing a lifeless pass back across his body into the strength of the defense. That interception set up Baltimore's winning field goal. That didn't exactly reek of greatness.

Reminder: Montana went 4-for-4 in Super Bowls and (I thought) deserved all four MVPs. Jerry Rice (11 catches for 215 yards) was MVP of Super Bowl XXIII even though Montana threw for 357 yards, including the winning 10-yard TD pass with 34 seconds left.

So, how much has Peyton rebuilt his legacy this postseason? No doubt the pressure was Rocky Mountain high after he yet again lifted the 13-3 Broncos to the No. 1 seed with the greatest statistical season ever. Against division nemesis San Diego, a 7.5-point underdog, Peyton did save the game with a late clutch throw on third-and-17 from his 20-yard line -- a 21-yard out to Julius Thomas after the Chargers blew the coverage and left him wide open.

And cold, hard fact: After the Patriots lost their Richard Sherman -- Aqib Talib -- four plays into the second quarter on what Bill Belichick basically called a Wes Welker cheap shot, Peyton should have won and did, 26-16.

Not only was Peyton unsacked in either home game, he was touched only once in each game. Seattle is tied for eighth in sacks.

In his record-smashing regular season, Peyton faced only four defenses in the top half of the league -- the highest being the Houston Texans' seventh-ranked defense. Now comes Seattle's D, ready to make a case that it deserves some all-time respect.

Big picture, Peyton at 37 hasn't received nearly enough credit for battling back from four neck procedures and not being able to throw a ball 10 yards. What a second act. And, Colts fans, I have not eased off my stance that your team made an all-time mistake easing Peyton out the back door in favor of Andrew Luck. Peyton just keeps putting his team in premium positions to make Super Bowl runs.

Now Sherman's team has fallen from Super Bowl heaven into Peyton's path. Now, a week from Sunday, it could feel as if Peyton Manning wins two or three Super Bowls that night. I'll be rooting for him.

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