By Jim Bearor
Today at 4:40pm EST, the Denver Broncos host the San Diego Chargers for the right to face the Patriots in the AFC Title game.
But before I even talk about today’s game, I want to address the one topic that is always the focus when Peyton Manning is in a playoff game: he isn’t the same player once the regular season ends.
I don’t disagree. You can look at his legacy in the postseason any way you want and try to convince yourself and those around you that his playoff shortcomings aren’t his fault, or that the choking narrative is just not true. But however you try and spin it, the results are still the same – for whatever reason, the elder Manning doesn’t live up to expectations after Week 17. Only if the Broncos win out and claim the Lombardi trophy, does this criticism stop – and even then, it doesn’t change the past.
Now does this mean that I don’t want Peyton Manning quarterbacking my team in the playoffs? Absolutely not. I’m just saying, it is an established fact that to this point in his career, Peyton in the playoffs isn’t the same as Peyton in the regular season, and he certainly isn’t Tom Brady in the playoffs. Just accept it.
That being said, I don’t expect him to fall on his face in every game after December. His past failures shouldn’t be ignored, but any knowledgeable football fan knows that the script can always be rewritten. While I don’t expect to see Peyton play at Brady’s level – because let’s face it, nobody is Tom Brady – I also don’t expect him to be the reason the Broncos get knocked out. Remember, if it wasn’t for a horrifically bad read by Denver Safety Rahim Moore in last year’s AFC Chamionship, Peyton would be praised for carrying his team to the Super Bowl.
But let’s talk about the game today…
Coming off of a bye, the top seeded Broncos are the obvious favorite, considering the offensive fireworks that they put on display all season. The Chargers are pretty comparable in essentially every category besides passing offense, and I favor their rushing attack over Denver’s. San Diego even came into Mile-High Stadium in Week 15 and got the win during their playoff-clinching 5 game streak to close the year. The gap between these teams is not what you would expect in a matchup between the top and bottom seeds in the AFC – and remember, this is a divisional matchup.
Phillip Rivers is 2-0 against Peyton, for whatever that’s worth (it’s not like they’re on the field at the same time), but Manning is on a different team now and the present-day Chargers look nothing like the groups of years past. Although San Diego put together quite the impressive streak to close the season, they needed help to get in and snag the last remaining playoff spot. Now, if you think back to the Marty Schottenheimer days, you’ll remember how supremely talented those Chargers teams were, and how often their postseason success fell short of expectations they set during the regular season.
I don’t know what kind of label I want to put on this Chargers team. Are they as good as they have looked in recent weeks, or are they an over-performing team that is about to be exposed in a big way? They do resemble – at least to a degree – the championship Packers and Giants teams that got hot at the right time, snuck in, and beat a lot of teams that were better than them. This is just a gut feeling though, a sort of déjà vu that I may be forcing myself to buy into because of the crazy things I’ve seen in years past.
I could see this game going a couple of ways:
Scenario 1: The game starts with the Broncos creating a little havoc up front – just enough to disrupt the run game and make Rivers uncomfortable – and Peyton gets a few early opportunities. He gets into a rhythm and puts up a couple quick scores. He gets the playoff monkey off his back and out of his mind early and the Broncos roll.
Scenario 2: Ryan Mathews and Ronnie Brown do some work on the ground, and help get the heat off of Phil’s back. The Chargers control the clock and hang around long enough to create doubt among the Broncos and their fans. Chargers squeak it out.
This is a tough, and I’m honestly not leaning one way or the other. But again, if you had a gun to my head and I have to make a pick?
Denver wins 35-14