Klee: Out with the Chargers, bring on the Patriots

By: Paul Klee
January 12, 2014 Updated: January 13, 2014 at 5:40 am
photo - Broncos safety Duke Ihenacho high fives fans as he runs off the field after beating the San Diego Chargers 24-17 in the Divisional Playoffs at Sports Authority Field at Mile High Sunday, January 12, 2014. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette
Broncos safety Duke Ihenacho high fives fans as he runs off the field after beating the San Diego Chargers 24-17 in the Divisional Playoffs at Sports Authority Field at Mile High Sunday, January 12, 2014. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette 

DENVER — When all the anxiety was finally released from Mile High, in one big whoosh of relief, Peyton Manning joked about beer.

"What's weighing on my mind is how soon I can get a Bud Light in my mouth," Manning said after the Broncos beat the Chargers 24-17 Sunday.

His brother, Cooper, leaned against a back wall and cracked a smile.

See, he's just like us. After a long, hard day at the office, Peyton Manning simply wants a cold one.

Except he's not. We've never played in the most-anticipated home game in our state's football history. Manning and the Broncos will, next Sunday at Sports Authority Field, against the Patriots. No other game played here boasts the kind of star power that will take the field at quarterback in the AFC championship game.

Remember Elway-Montana on a Monday night? Brady-Manning is that, but with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. So yeah, this is kind of a big deal.

And Peyton? He's joking about beer.

Next Sunday is why Pat Bowlen, Joe Ellis and John Elway ditched their poker faces and went all-in to sign an aging quarterback coming off multiple neck surgeries.

Next Sunday is the best quarterback rivalry in league history, a matchup so good it will be put it on display for the 15th time. Next Sunday is today's equivalent of Bird-Magic, Nicklaus-Palmer, Agassi-Sampras.

And Peyton? He's joking about beer.

"The game next week is the Broncos against the Patriots," he said.

Except it's not.

Our sports world is firmly grounded in perception, not reality. And the perception, when it comes to Brady-Manning, is this:

"When you talk about Peyton Manning, you talk about numbers," TV commentator Ray Lewis said on one of those pompous pregame shows Sunday. "When you talk about Tom Brady, you talk about championship rings."

It's quite a dumb perception, really. Sunday's divisional playoff game offered the latest example why it's silly to blame Manning for his teams' under-.500 playoff record (10-11).

Manning was awesome. His touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas, at the goal line, slid through a window barely wide enough to slide a hamburger. His lob to Julius Thomas, on third and 17 with a region having flashbacks to the Mile High Mistake, was a thing of wobbling beauty.

Throwing into vicious winds that forced Mile High to ditch the giant American flag during the national anthem, Manning was the best thing in sports. He was a great being great.

And yet his numbers Sunday (25 for 36, two touchdowns, one interception) were oddly similar to his numbers in regulation in this game last year (24 for 37, three touchdowns, one interception).

The Ravens won last year, and Manning got called out for his playoff record.

The Broncos won this year, and Manning will hear, for the next week, how he struggles to win the big one. Sunday felt like a big one, didn't it?

"Any time you get a playoff win it's a big deal," Broncos wideout Wes Welker said. "But it doesn't mean anything if you don't get the next one."

And Peyton? He's joking about beer.

The Broncos didn't watch the Patriots whip the Colts and advance to the AFC championship game in Denver.

"We didn't get to see much of the game," Quentin Jammer said.

For all the car commercials, "Saturday Night Live" skits and supermodel girlfriends, maybe the biggest reason we're drawn to this quarterback rivalry is the human element.

In the over-the-top production that is the NFL, it's easy to forget the human element. The human element was at work Sunday, when Rahim Moore ambled through the Broncos locker room, slapping the backs of his teammates, one year to the day from his personal nightmare. It was at work when Philip Rivers kicked dirt and grounded the football in disgust, like a naughty fifth-grader sent to the principal's office.

It was at work when Peyton joked about beer.

"You're supposed to enjoy these wins," he said.

The Broncos and Patriots are the AFC's best teams, playing their best, at the best time.

"There's an obvious reason why we're the No. 1 and 2 seeds," said Champ Bailey, who hasn't played in a Super Bowl, but would like to.

The Broncos are superior, but the Patriots are a worry, mostly because Brady is and always will be a worry.

So worry about Broncos cornerback Chris Harris getting healthy by Sunday. If Harris can't practice this week, the Patriots will ditch their newfound running game quicker than they discovered it. When Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie missed the second half of the game at Gillette Stadium, Brady picked at their weakness, over and over. Worry about the Dark Lord of Foxboro, Bill Belichick, sticking needles into the Voodoo doll he must hide under his pillow.

But don't worry about Peyton Manning. He just wants a beer.


Twitter: @Klee_Gazette

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