Maestro Needs One More to be Best QB Ever

For a still moment, with 70,000 delirious witnesses dutifully hushed, you thought you were watching a conductor and his orchestra. All you could hear in this orange-deluged stadium was a single voice, in command of a drive, a championship game and — stop me when this reaches ad nauseum — the greatest season known to quarterbackingkind. There he was, the man who transformed the most glamorous of positions into a cerebral exercise and religious experience, pointing and shouting, marching toward the line of scrimmage and back, then crouching and barking and extending his hands and finally getting the snap after yelling something as goofy as “Omaha!”

This is the closest sports ever will take us into the spiritual cocoon of a Gustavo Dudamel, a Mariss Jansons, a Riccardo Muti. His name is Peyton Williams Manning, and though he hawks Papa John’s pizza and dresses like a heavy-metal rocker in his TV commercials, he is an exquisite virtuoso unlike any football has produced.

And now, after a masterful performance in the AFC title game, the maestro is headed again to the Super Bowl, which temporarily mutes the Hatin’ Peyton noise that he can’t win big games and places him within one victory of the ultimate distinction in his craft. Yes, if Manning wins in the Meadowlands, where he and the Broncos are slight favorites, he will have two of those big trophies, which would make him a multiple Super Bowl winner and, coupled with his unprecedented five MVP awards and staggering body of work in regular seasons, would pretty much cinch his pre-eminence. He doesn’t have to win four like Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, who were surrounded by supreme two-way talent. Two will be plenty, making him the first QB to win championships with two different teams, the first to win after four career-threatening neck surgeries. And if he doesn’t win, what, you’re going to say Peyton Manning stinks?

He knows the smaller AFC hardware, which fit in his hand as he held it aloft for the Denver fans in his Mile High cathedral, goes in the back of the case. Manning did little celebrating after the 26-16 victory over the Patriots, in which he effectively kept Tom Brady off the field by throwing for 400 yards and two touchdowns while suffering no interceptions or sacks. Managing not even a smile, he walked out to midfield, shook hands with Brady and Bill Belichick and other New England personnel, calmly removed his jersey and rewardrobed with a AFC CHAMPIONS t-shirt and cap. Not until he shared a hug with John Elway, the Broncos great who out recruited Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll for the biggest free agent in NFL history, did Manning reveal a hint of satisfaction.

The man wants more, so much more. The way he dominates games and seasons, do you blame him for thinking he can achieve it?

“Being in my 16th season, going to my third Super Bowl, I know how hard it is to get there,” Manning said.

He will be 38 in March. He still has three years left on his Denver contract, before he retires to a life of broadcast booths and eventual team ownership in the NFL, and I can’t imagine him not playing at least another season when he’s performing at the highest level a passer has attained. His boss agrees. “I still think he’s young and he’s playing well,” Elway told a group of reporters. “That’s going to come down to Peyton. It’s going to come down to what he wants to do. Having been a football player before, when you leave this game, you want to leave it on your last leg and try not to leave anything on the table. So, anybody that’s a competitor, that’s kind of the way they want to leave the game. I was just fortunate to be able to be on two great football teams and be able to win world championships when my last leg broke.”

Championships, plural. While he’ll be the second-oldest quarterback to start in a Super Bowl, older than all but Elway (who was 38), there’s no reason this has to be a solo trek for Manning, health permitting. With four receiving weapons thriving and a stronger offensive line helped by Ryan Clady’s return, why can’t the Broncos top their NFL-record 606 points next season? The Manning offensive’s two masterpiece scoring drives — 7:01 in the first quarter, 7:08 in the third quarter, prioritizing short-yardage throws predicated on ball control — sucked all energy and hope out of the Patriots and kept Brady moping on the sideline. “To keep Tom Brady on the sideline is a good thing,” Manning said. Such superiority won’t be vanishing in the offseason. According to Manning’s Broncos contract, he must undergo an extensive examination in April to make sure his fused-together neck hasn’t lost stability. Life’s realities do give him pause.

“You don’t take this for granted, especially when you’ve been through a major change and you’re in the home stretch of your career,” Manning said. “When you go through a significant injury and have a major career change, you truly do go one year at a time and you don’t look past what’s going on now, because you aren’t sure what’s going to happen in the future. Tomorrow is not promised.”

But another big game is promised, on brother Eli’s New Jersey turf. It is precisely the story line the league wanted in its first New York metropolitan Super Bowl — football’s best and most acclaimed player, sports’ most visible product endorser and the reigning Sportsman of the Year against the champs of the stronger NFC — and he’ll face relentless questions from a massive media corps about the need to win for his personal legacy. Good luck with extracting much from him on the topic.

When CBS’ Jim Nantz tried on the victory stand, as confetti swirled, Manning shut him down. First he mumbled something about being happy to represent the conference again as “an AFC guy,” then he talked about the sunny weather. “Heck of a day for football today,” he said, perhaps making a sly reference to criticism of his play in inclement conditions.

His thoughts beyond the celebration were no more revealing. Ask him about what the Super Bowl means to him, and he’ll tell you what it means to the Broncos. “”I think team success is the No. 1 thing, and that’s about the time you put in, the work you put in as a team to reach goals, to execute, to put yourselves in position,” he said. “I guess I’ve always felt like individual things are nice and you’re thankful, but the success of your team, that’s what is at the heart of everything.”

But isn’t this really about a legendary quarterback who overcame a serious injury to return with another team and enhance his legacy with record-shattering play? Right? “We’ve definitely come a long way in two years,” said Manning, proving again there no “i” in Peyton. “And bouncing back from last year’s playoff loss to put ourselves in this position, it definitely feels very gratifying.”

His coach and teammates will deflect the praise back his way. “He has been remarkable,” said coach John Fox, who is headed to his second Super Bowl after midseason heart surgery sidelined him for a month. “It’s unprecedented what he has done.”

Even the losers paid unique tributes. “Losing is never easy, but when you have somebody as talented as (Manning), who puts in as much work and effort, and has done it for so long, it’s a little bit easier to swallow,” said Patriots defensive captain Rob Ninkovich.

In New York, they’ll also keep asking Manning about the “Omaha” audible, now that he’s using it as a sign-off on almost every play. Doesn’t everyone realize he’s playing us? “I’ve had a lot of people ask me what ‘Omaha’ means,” he said, his famous deadpan in full bloom. “It’s a run play, but it could be a pass play, or a play-action pass, depending on a couple of things. The wind, which way we’re going, the quarter and the jerseys we’re wearing. It varies from play to play.”

Translation: I’m smarter than you, and it really means nothing, but I have you convinced that it’s the secret to my success. Certainly, if it’s a lot of hooey, it has helped the underprivileged. With the Nebraska city gaining unexpected attention from the “Omaha” buzz, eight businesses there agreed to donate $800 every time he used the word Sunday. He said it 31 times, making $24,800 for Manning’s Peyback Foundation.

Numbers, numbers. The man is about numbers. Having disposed of some stigmas — can’t win in the postseason, can’t beat Brady and Belichick — what he’ll hear constantly in New York is his record in cold-weather games. He is 9-13 in games in which the game-time temperature was below 40 degrees, which almost certainly will be the case Feb. 2 in East Rutherford. When the temperature is below 30, his record is 2-8. After throwing for four TDs in a 51-28 victory over Tennessee last month, when the kickoff temperature was 18, he fired another hard spiral at his critics.

“Whoever wrote that narrative,” he said, “can shove it where the sun doesn’t shine.”

One more victory, and he can even slip in a curse word or two. The Peyton Hatin’ Crowd would deserve it.