Forget his ability to dissect every kind of defensive scheme, strategy or stunt. Peyton Manning's most impressive victory is over age and atrophy.
Manning is better today than he was 10 years ago, and he was a candidate for the best quarterback ever 10 years ago.
I'd call Manning's 2013 season mind-boggling but I hate selling it short. I'd call his 2013 season impressive, but I hate using inadequate adjectives. I'd call his 2013 season MVP worthy, and so should everyone else.
The two seasons Manning has spent as quarterback of the Denver Broncos have been the best consecutive seasons of his career. All that's missing is a Super Bowl title, and that could be just around the corner.
Numbers can be manipulated, but only to a point, and if you see how Manning's statistics the last two seasons stack up in career, you'll see just how incredible he has been since leaving the Indianapolis Colts.
Here's a quick listing of his single-season bests, and he still has three games left in 2013:
* Passing yardage: 1. 4,700 (2010), 2. 4,659 (2012), 3. 4,522 (2013)
* Completion percentage: 1. 68.8 (2009), 2. 68.6 (2012), 3. 67.9 (2013)
* Touchdown passes: 1. 49 (2004), 2. 45 (2013), 3. 37 (2012)
* Passer rating: 1. 121.1 (2004), 2. 114.5 (2013), 3. 105.8 (2012)
* Fewest interceptions 1. 9 (2006, 2013), 2. 10 (2003, 2004, 2005)
Critics argue that many of the above numbers the last two years are the result of a change in the type of passes Manning throws. They argue that he's doing more dinking-and-dunking, relying more on the skills of his receivers to churn out yardage after catches.
Perhaps there's some merit in that. Denver's offense looks a lot like the classic Colts offense that Manning directed to near-perfection over the years. Still, it does seem to include a lot more “safe” passes of shorter yardage in what some would call a nod to Manning's lessened arm strength.
Is that perception accurate? Consider these statistics:
* Completions of 20+ yards: 1. 68 (2004), 2. 64 (2012), 3. 59 (2009), 4. 58 (2013)
* Completions of 40+ yards: 1. 13 (2004), 2. 12 (2013), 3, 10 (1999, 2001, 2002)
Sure looks like he can still throw deep, huh?
The Broncos are 11-2 and one of two AFC teams to have clinched a playoff berth. (Manning actually sealed two playoff berths last Sunday, clinching for Denver and knocking off the Titans, which handed the AFC South title to the Colts. See, Manning is still doing work for the Colts.)
We can dissect the statistics and point out, legitimately, that changes in the rules have increased quarterback passing numbers across the board. That's true.
But what Manning has done in the two years since missing an entire season with a career-threatening neck injury is one of the great comeback stories in sports history.
I never doubted Manning would come back to play if doctors cleared him to play. He is one of the most competitive athletes of all time. I did doubt he could match the play of his heyday with the Colts. I never imagined he would seem to surpass it in many ways at age 37. He needs five touchdown passes in the next three games to break Tom Brady's record of 50 in a season. You know he has his sights set on that. He might push it to 54 or 55.
While the Broncos, like many NFL teams, have had their share of injuries, including crucial ones on the offensive line, they have to be the AFC favorite to make the Super Bowl. Their two losses were at Indianapolis in the last great game the Colts played this season, and at New England, where Manning had his least-productive game of the season. Still, it took a special-teams mistake to set up New England's game-winning field goal.
Denver should have home-field advantage through AFC title game, which will most likely feature a rematch with Brady and the Patriots. That's only appropriate. Manning won his only Super Bowl with the Colts when they beat New England in the AFC Championship game. Given the déjà vu nature of this season, what else would we expect?
Could the Broncos prevail against, most likely, the Seattle Seahawks in a cold-weather Super Bowl in New Jersey?
Seattle would bring its nasty defense and attitude and Manning would be faced once again with winning in less-than-favorable conditions.
After Manning put up 397 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Tennessee, he said the person who first posed the idea he couldn't win in the cold weather could “stick it where the sun don't shine.”
The most incredible part of Manning's success is Denver is that, in the twilight of his career, he's shining brighter than ever.