Welcome to New York
You've heard the story tons of times by now, but that doesn’t make it any less spectacular. Twenty-two months ago, Peyton Manning came to Denver, not knowing how, or if, his tale would continue. Now he prepares to take over the Big Apple, one win away from winning that elusive second Lombardi. He'll stare down the loquacious Richard Sherman, who made headlines of his own Sunday, and the Seahawks
“A lot of that was adrenaline.”
That’s going to be part of Super Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman’s newest column in The MMQB, which you can read (or shred) this afternoon. Sherman batted the potential game-winning touchdown away from Michael Crabtree with 22 seconds left, and was still in full-on woofing mode when FOX’s Erin Andrews corralled him moments after Seattle’s 23-17 win over San Francisco. “I’m the best cornerback in the game!” he yelled. “When you try me with some sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you’re going to get!!!” Sherman spent the evening getting raked over the social (and news) media coals, as if he were some black-hatted pro wrestler. “I don’t want to be a villain, because I’m not a villainous person,” he writes, and … well, you’ll see it later today. I’ll have more on Sherman, the player and the columnist, a little further down in the column.
So it’s a Seattle-Denver Super Bowl, one full of intrigue and new story lines, seeing that almost every player in the game will be new to the Super Bowl stage. Every player but one. Peyton Manning is back for his third Big One, and Sherman will have to work hard to get in Manning’s head. “You can’t get in Peyton’s head. If you get in his head, you’ll get lost,” Sherman said.
One more note from the NFC: Second straight season San Francisco lost driving for a touchdown on its final offensive play of the season, with Colin Kaepernick lofting one high into the right corner of the end zone for Michael Crabtree, who, both times, strained for the ball about six yards deep in the end zone near the sideline stripe. Incomplete, intercepted. Last year Baltimore in the Super Bowl, this year Seattle in the NFC Championship Game. What a cruel bummer of a coincidence.
* * *
DENVER — “Proud of you, bro,” Cooper Manning called out to Peyton Manning in the Broncos’ locker room Sunday, and a minute or so later, the family gathered around a showered Peyton at his locker. Club employees kept the media from hearing family business. Peyton’s back was to the room, his upper torso bare; Cooper, the older brother, to his right, and Eli, the younger, to his left. My eyes found the scar on the back of Peyton’s neck, the remnant of one of his four surgeries to repair a neck problem that threatened to force him into retirement a couple of years ago.
Four neck surgeries. And he just threw for 400 yards, his third-best playoff total in 22 postseason games.
At age 37, in a conference championship game, against Bill Belichick’s team.
“Kinda makes this special,” said dad Archie, standing off to the side.
Twenty-two months ago today, Peyton Manning was signed by the Broncos. Amazing what can happen in that time. Two teams that pursued Manning and lost, Arizona and Tennessee, have whacked their head coaches since. Two other teams that pursued Manning and lost, Seattle and San Francisco, met for the NFC title Sunday with kid quarterbacks playing. And Manning has lifted a team, and a region, to the Super Bowl, long past his expiration date. I saw a family walking in Denver Saturday with the dad and two girls all in orange MANNING 18 jerseys. The guy in front of me at Starbucks Sunday morning had an “OMAHA! OMAHA!” Manning T-shirt on, and I guess you know what that’s about.
“Are you a football fan? You like the Broncos?” I asked my thickly accented cabdriver Saturday morning.
“I like Manning,” he said.
The economic impact of the man alone seems amazing. I’ve been in town four times since Labor Day—for the season opener, this game, and twice for SI Sportsman of the Year stuff—and don’t kid yourselves: If Manning had signed with Arizona, I’d probably have been in the Valley of the Sun four times since Labor Day. A lot of people would have. And now the Super Bowl will get the added boost of Manning trying to win his second Lombardi Trophy, as if a New York/New Jersey Super Bowl needed extra luster. Just as Eli won a title in his brother’s stadium in Indianapolis two years ago, now Peyton will try to win a title in Eli’s stadium in New Jersey.
So, about that beatdown of the dreaded Patriots … Before he rejoined his family to celebrate the win, Manning stopped in a hallway outside his locker room to relive some of what made this game go so well.
Manning knew this was going to be a good day. He knew most of the week it would be. One thing that’s happened here is the trust he’s built with rookie offensive coordinator Adam Gase this year. “I really like Gase,” Manning said. “It’s a compliment to him. I like playing for guys that are smarter than me and work as hard as me. Gase is there before I get there in the morning.”
This week, Gase decided to put a play in the game plan that raised eyebrows in the offensive meeting room. The fourth tight end on the team, Virgil Green, had played in 47 games for the Broncos over his three Denver seasons. He’d never run the ball once. In his 48th game, Sunday, Green had a running play in the plan. “Pretty different,” Manning said. “You know, Belichick prepares them for everything. But a run by Virgil Green was not on their hit chart anywhere. We have some formations with three receivers and two tight ends where you had an empty set and throw and Gase said We’re just going to put Virgil back there and run it. And he really made a heck of a run.” Gain of six, midway through a 93-yard touchdown drive.
“That’s what I like about Adam,” Manning said. “He’s always working, always thinking. We email each other at night ideas, and bounce ideas off—‘”
“Anything like that this week?” I asked.
He thought a minute, then brought up the run by Knowshon Moreno six plays after the Green run. Third-and-10 from the New England 39, midway through the second quarter, Patriots playing two safeties deep with four other defensive backs on the field. As Manning got the call in his helmet from Gase, the offensive coordinator reminded him: “We need about five yards for a field goal here.” Manning went to the line, saw the big gap over right guard, saw the two safeties deep, and paused his cadence. He went to the line and changed the call.
“All week,” Manning said, “[Gase] said, ‘Don’t be afraid to check to the run if you get that look.’ And when he told me we needed five yards to get in field-goal range, he was saying, ‘If you like the look for the run, check to it, and don’t think twice about it.’ Sure enough, the seas kind of parted there.” Gain of 28.
But the play Manning loved involved a little game he and Gase play.
“He and I have a rule,” Manning said. “We can’t talk after practice on Friday. We say, ‘We’re not talking Friday once we leave, we’re going to our families.’ And so he said on Friday, ‘Call me if you get a chance. I have a good thought for a play around the 5[-yard line]. But I said, ‘I’m not calling you. You email me your idea, and I’ll voice-memo you whether I like it or not.”
“Voice memo?” I said. “Like recording on the phone, then emailing it?”
“Right,” he said. “I record it and email it.”
Manning liked Gase’s idea. Inside the 5, on an early down, the Patriots were inclined to bring one or more safeties down close to the line. “Not a good look to run the ball,” said Manning. On 1st-and-goal from the 3 midway through the third quarter, Gase called the play—for a run, not a pass. And when Manning got to the line, he saw the safety cheating down, and so Manning changed the play to a pass. “We got the perfect look,” Manning said. Demaryius Thomas pressed cornerback Alfonzo Dennard toward the corner of the end zone, then broke quickly to the post.
Wide open. Touchdown.
So Manning was planning to take at least a few minutes Sunday night to reflect on where he was 22 months ago, and where he is.
“I think it certainly is important to take a moment to reflect and to savor the moment and the win,” he said. “I can remember that time well two years ago. I asked every question of every doctor to give me some kind of timetable. Can you give me some kind of definite answer about how I’m going to feel? And none of them could. It was a test of faith and trust in the process and I knew I was going to put all the hard work I had into it and try to improve. But I couldn’t predict that we would be at this point. And I had no idea how I was going to be physically, no idea how the team is going to come together. And choosing the Broncos, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker were significant in that process. From what I’d studied of those two receivers, I thought that if we got in there and really worked at it, and I did make some strides and improvements like I hoped I would, that we could form a good passing game. And add Wes Welker this year, and Gase has been the perfect guy … “
It’s been a better marriage than Manning could have hoped for. Denver is 28-7 (an .800 winning percentage) since he walked in the door. But it’s that 29th win that Manning’s been seeking for a long, long time, and he’ll go off Broadway to get it. You want drama with your Super Bowl? I’ll give you drama: Peyton Manning trying to win his second world title and change the debate about his legacy in the first, and probably only, Super Bowl ever to be played in the biggest market in America.
* * *
The NFC game, and the aftermath, was wacky.
Four key characters in the NFC Championship Game:
Richard Sherman. To sum up: Sherman made the clinching play in the Seahawks’ 23-17 win over the Niners. Sherman writes for The MMQB. I am the editor-in-chief of the site. I am 56. I did not like what he did seconds after the game, screaming answers angrily to questions by FOX’s Erin Andrews. I’m not a big fan of belittling opponents, and neither, apparently, are you, because many of you on Twitter wanted Sherman drawn and quartered. However, I’m not firing Richard Sherman. I’m not muzzling Richard Sherman. I asked him to write for us for the season, and write he shall do. I don’t have to like what a man says to the cameras to give him a forum to discuss intelligent football topics, which is what Sherman has done for the last six months for The MMQB. Now, when I saw what he said, my first reaction was: That’s why the NFL has a cooling-off period before allowing writers into locker rooms after games. In the five minutes before Sherman’s outburst to Andrews about how great he was and how worthless Michael Crabtree was, Sherman batted the potential game-winning pass into the arms of a teammate, winning the game for Seattle. He ran after Crabtree, said something, got flagged for taunting him. Then Crabtree pushed Sherman away by the facemask, and the Seahawks ran out the final 22 seconds of the game. Emotions were still high, and Andrews got Sherman to talk. He woofed to America the way he woofs on the field. As I said, it’s not how I would react. But he didn’t sugarcoat his opinions. We ask players for the truth all the time, and they so rarely give it to us that we’re shocked when they do. NFL Films did a good story on Sherman that you might want to watch to understand him.
NaVorro Bowman. What a tough game this is. Bowman was the best defender for the 49ers Sunday, with 14 tackles, and that is not rare. He suffered a likely torn ACL, while offensive guard Mike Iupati broke an ankle. The ACL injury came in a pile near the goal line, with the Seahawks threatening to score—and the embarrassing thing for Gene Steratore’s officiating crew was that replays showed the fumble on the play was clearly recovered by Bowman and he was down, in screaming pain, and still holding on to the ball. Then, when players started diving in for the fumble, the ball got stolen from Bowman. But now Bowman has a race on his hands. Opening day is seven and a half months away; he’s become as valuable as any single 49ers defensive player. We don’t even know the extent of his injury yet, but whatever it is, it’s certainly no lock he’ll be ready to start the 2014 season on time.
Colin Kaepernick. I know about the three turnovers in the last 11 minutes. That cannot happen, and it did, and it cost San Francisco the game. But the touchdown pass he threw is one of the most amazing throws I’ve seen covering football. Running to his right, Kaepernick elevated and, with both feet off the ground, snapped off a perfect spiral, which went 26 yards in the air and landed perfectly in Anquan Boldin’s hands. An amazing throw. A rope. It would have been great if he was standing flat-footed. He’ll get better and learn when to take chances and when not to. But there are so few guys who come into the NFL with the ability to do what Kaepernick did on that throw.
Kam Chancellor. Player of the game. The advantage Chancellor brings into a game is his size (6-3, 232 pounds, large for a safety) and his aggression. He separated Vernon Davis from the ball in the second half on a bang-bang play that Davis got the worst of, and he made Michael Crabtree short-arm a pass later, with the ball falling incomplete. “Alligator arms,” fellow safety Earl Thomas said from Seattle. “Receivers always know where Kam is. He’s our enforcer.” And he picked off Kaepernick when he was late to a spot in front of the receiver—purposefully. Chancellor made an acrobatic fingertip pick on the ball. “You have to know your job in this defense on every play,” said Thomas. “He’s a great student.” But he’d be nothing without the big stick he carries. In the Super Bowl, the collisions between him and Julius Thomas could be legendary.