Updated: January 13, 2014 at 11:40 am
DENVER — Marshall, one of his toddler twins was saying "daddy" and his father, Archie, was beaming with parental pride while Peyton Manning described the 9,247th pass of his spectacular, if strangely unsatisfying, NFL career.
You know the pass I'm talking about. With 3:06 left in a much-closer-than-it-should-have-been victory over the San Diego Chargers, Manning and his Broncos faced extreme peril. Against all odds, the Broncos were clinging to a 24-17 lead despite dominating most of the game. They had tripped over their own feet, which prevented Eric Decker from scoring on a punt return, and allowed a foolish, needless block to erase a touchdown by Trindon Holliday. This is a short list of the Broncos' disturbing generosity.
A door needed to be slammed shut, and Manning was just the man to do the slamming. It was third and 17, and Manning knew Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and his blazing hot arm waited on the sideline for a final chance. A packed house at Mile High was thinking about the game that somehow got away in the playoffs last season against the Ravens. This also was the fear of millions of Broncos fans scattered across the Front Range and the world.
Manning banished the fear. He retreated into the pocket and searched downfield for a long instant. Finally, he saw tight end Julius Thomas sprinting toward the Broncos' sideline.
This is a pattern Manning and Thomas have crafted in after-practice sessions. Just the two of them working together, one of the NFL's greatest-ever players and a promising young receiver embracing the rewards of diligent labor.
Manning, under pressure from Chargers behemoth Corey Liuget, zipped a pass to Thomas, who made a skipping catch along the sidelines for a 21-yard-gain.
Thomas ran into the embrace of fellow tight end Jacob Tamme on the sideline. Tamme shouted into the ear of Thomas. "Way to make a play!"
It barely occurred to Tamme to celebrate Manning's throw.
"Ah, no," Tamme said with an admiring laugh. "He plays at such a high level all the time. You kind of expect that throw and that first down."
We, along with Tamme, expect Manning to make those season-saving throws. His utter mastery has spoiled us along with blurring the wow factor of witnessing him terrorize defenses. Watching Manning throw passes in the winter of 2014 is similar to watching Babe Ruth attack fastballs in the summer of 1927 or Michael Jordan rise to ridiculous heights in the spring of 1989.
And yet .
Manning only owns one Super Bowl ring. Yes, I realize "only" might seem a cruel modifier, but it's a proper description for a quarterback who reigns in the regular season but often struggles in the playoffs. This is where unsatisfying enters the conversation.
Only one conclusion can properly end Manning's career-ending journey to Colorado, and that's a Super Bowl title. Anything less will diminish the mythical quality of this saga.
In the late stages of the Broncos' surrender to the Ravens last season, Manning looked utterly human and depressingly old. In the final minutes of this victory over the Chargers, Manning was sharp and courageous. The Super Bowl beckons.
Of course, there is a stupendous obstacle in the way. The Patriots and Tom Brady will invade Colorado this week for the AFC title game. Brady, like Manning, faces the twilight of his career. Brady, like Manning, is ravenously hungry for a trip, most likely the final one, to football's ultimate game.
Manning already is weary of the Brady-Manning storyline. Prediction: He will grow much more weary.
"The game next week is the Broncos vs. the Patriots," Manning said, his southern drawl turning stern.
That's true, Peyton. But it's also a meeting of two of history's greatest quarterbacks, and only one can craft a fitting finale.