Did you at any point, over the course of 3 1/2 hours, think Alex Smith was going to beat Peyton Manning? Honestly? Once it was clear that no defender in Kansas City white would penetrate the Manning cocoon — hermetically sealed as it was by Chris Clark, Orlando Franklin and those Denver linemen we’d been doubting in previous days — the new question became whether Smith’s arm was potent enough to consistently lead the Chiefs downfield and keep pace with a machine set to shatter the NFL’s single-season points record.
The answer, as we suspected during a 9-0 Chiefs run that looked like a mirage wrapped inside a lie, was no way. Or, in Missouri, no fricking way. Even with Manning wearing a knee brace, a foot contraption and so much white trainer’s tape around his two sprained ankles that he looked like he’d borrowed Frankenstein’s shoes, he brought his usual methodical brilliance to the NFL’s biggest regular-season game so far this season, reducing Smith to a hit-and-miss wannabe in a no-mess, no-fuss, 27-17 Broncos victory.
This isn’t to say Manning now has a first-class jet ride to New York for the Super Bowl, something the NFL and the advertising and media worlds dearly want. He still seems one vicious hit away, at 37, from breaking in two, given his assortment of leg, foot and neck issues and a blue glove that just doesn’t look right on his throwing hand. But somehow, Kansas City’s top-ranked defense couldn’t manage a single knockdown or sack of Manning, who barely was touched by Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, Derrick Johnson and a unit that entered the game with a league-high 36 sacks. As usual, he won with his brains — getting rid of the ball in 2.5 seconds or less, guiding passes more than heaving them, relying on guile and preparation and instinct born of genius. Maybe he won’t have the same success this weekend in New England — the latest Manning vs. Tom Brady hype already is thick — or the following Sunday for a rematch in Kansas City. But the idea is to win the AFC West and finish with a good enough record to clinch an opening-round bye, which would give Manning an extra week to rest. This was the first step in accomplishing that while realizing Smith, the San Francisco castoff, isn’t a quarterback who can win a big game by sheer force of talent or will.
Manning was doing just enough to get by, completing 24 of 40 passes for 323 yards and a touchdown. “Our plan was to get to the quarterback, but the ball is coming out quick,” Hali said, per the Associated Press. “He did a great job and their team did a great job protecting him.”
Smith? He managed two touchdown passes, but he completed only 21 of 45 passes for 230 yards — a weak 5.1 yards per attempt. He has an All-Pro workhorse back in Jamaal Charles, but the Chiefs couldn’t sustain a threatening rhythm. “We didn’t do a good enough job offensively,” said coach Andy Reid, who can’t wasting an elite defense with a sporadic offense. “That’s my responsibility. We’re a young football team. We’ll get it worked out and fixed and get better next week.”
I’m not so certain. The Broncos and Manning were vulnerable — their head coach, John Fox, is still recovering from heart surgery — and the Chiefs didn’t take advantage, looking sluggish and unworthy of the moment. All week, when the players weren’t answering questions about the marijuana bust of receiver Dwayne Bowe, they were fending off suspicions that their perfect record was a hollow byproduct of an easy schedule resulting from a 2-14 disaster last season. They have only 18 offensive touchdowns in 10 games and rank 29th in passing, which is counterproductive to a defense that leads the league in takeaways.
“All the talk of any of that is just talk,” Smith said. “It’s pointless in my mind. It’s set up to find out who’s the best, and that’s our focus.”
Right now, Denver is the best team in a watered-down AFC. Other than the Broncos — not yet, Indianapolis — is there a Super Bowl team in that conference? Under interim head coach Jack Del Rio, who may have his pick of coaching jobs that could include NFL openings and the USC vacancy, the Broncos haven’t missed a beat. It helps when the offensive line is playing security cop for Manning. “They were under fire last week because Peyton got hit a few times, but they’ve done a great job all year,” Del Rio said. “We knew this was going to be a game you had to play well in the trenches to have a chance. I think part of it, a big part of it, was keeping him upright and not letting (the Chiefs) be as disruptive as they’re capable of being.”
Manning continues to be America’s favorite athlete, if TV ad time and jersey sales are accurate indicators. No sportsman is a more prolific pitchman, not even the TV-ubiquitous LeBron James. But popularity isn’t in his ballgame anymore. He wants to correct one of the sport’s biggest discrepancies — why does he have only one Super Bowl ring when his less accomplished brother, Eli, has two rings and Brady has three? You don’t know him well if you think he’ll let a few injuries bother him, painful and potentially debilitating as they are. When asked about his ankle issues after the game, he had a stock answer ready.
“Not doing the weekly checkups and updates,” Manning said.
I’ll provide the update for him: He’s doing just fine, for now.
And better, no doubt, than a healthy Alex Smith.