DENVER — No quarterback has been to the playoffs more than Peyton Manning or experienced more heartache there, either.
Only once in his previous dozen trips to the postseason party has Manning put his fingerprints on the Lombardi Trophy.
His 9-11 postseason record stands in stark contrast to his 167-73 regular season mark and includes eight first-round exits, none more scarring than last year’s AFC Divisional round-home loss to Baltimore as the AFC’s top seed.
He also lost his first playoff game in Indianapolis as the No. 1 seed after the 2005 season, then bounced back to win it all the next year. Since then, he’s won just two of seven playoff games and lost his last three.
The meticulous quarterback renowned for his unrivaled work ethic and painstaking preparation doesn’t believe that’s because he grinds too much in January.
“I really don’t believe so,” Manning said as he prepared for Sunday’s showdown between his Denver Broncos (13-3) and the San Diego Chargers (10-7). “I know people — it’s easy to summarize, to take a whole bunch of football seasons and lump them together. I personally don’t believe in that theory.
“I think each season takes on its own identity and different things occurred along the way at different points of my career. This is the 2013 season, 2014 postseason, and it’s its own chapter. We’re looking forward to hopefully writing it for a number of more weeks.”
Manning set a slew of records this season, including 55 TD passes and 5,447 yards through the air as the Broncos became the highest-scoring team of the Super Bowl era. Five players scored 10 or more touchdowns. No team in history had ever had more than three players accomplish that feat.
Yet for all his records and all his greatness, Manning’s fault-finders point to his cold-weather record — it’s 4-7 in sub-freezing temperatures at kickoff — and his playoff pratfalls — his 11 losses are tied with Brett Favre for most in NFL history — to suggest he won’t cap it all off with a championship in the first outdoor Super Bowl in a cold-weather city next month.
Here’s the thing about the cold: In many of those games, Manning had the lesser team. That’s why he was on the road. And sometimes, he only played a series or two because his team had already clinched its playoff slot, but the loss went next to his name nonetheless.
And in the playoffs, you could point the finger at his supporting cast as much as you could at him, if not more.
If Rahim Moore doesn’t make one of the biggest blunders in playoff history last year, Manning would be hailed for his fourth-quarter touchdown toss to beat the Ravens and not lambasted for his interception in overtime. And maybe now he’d be trying to defend a Super Bowl title instead of seeking atonement.
That scarring defeat has driven Manning for 365 days.
So doggedly determined to rectify that disappointment, Manning at times this season seemed in a hurry just to get back here. The regular season took on an air of being 20 preseason games with the real opener coming Sunday afternoon.
Yet, all week, he was relaxed, embracing the pressure of this time of year.
“If it’s just miserable this whole time, then why are you really doing it? I mean, there are other things you can do that might make you feel less miserable than if it’s just an absolute grind,” Manning said. “And maybe, as you get older, you think more in those lines, that, ‘Hey, this is a pretty unique opportunity to be in this position, to be one of just a few teams playing.’”
Manning is coming off his best statistical season at age 37, just two years removed from the neck surgeries that weakened his throwing arm but strengthened his resolve.
Yet, no matter how many more years he has left, he knows he won’t get many more chances. And so, he’s embracing this latest trip to the playoffs and enjoying the journey, relishing his chance to chase redemption and another ring.
“It’s going to be a great atmosphere on Sunday, playing a good football team, and there is nothing else I would rather be doing,” Manning said. “And so that is certainly my goal to enjoy the preparation, not just the game, to actually enjoy the preparation part of it, enjoy being around the guys.
“Because certainly, the light is at the end of the tunnel for me, no question. And so, I think you enjoy these things maybe even more.”