Updated: January 17, 2014 at 7:39 am
The burden of greatness.
This is the weight on Peyton Manning's shoulders. I've heard from readers who believe it's unfair to say Manning has won "only" one Super Bowl title or to refer to his losing record (10 wins, 11 losses) in the playoffs or to wonder why he's so dominating in the regular season and sometimes not-so-dominating in games that matter most.
My answer for all the legion of Manning fans is this:
The questions that surround Manning are, really, a compliment. While he terrorizes defenses during the regular season, he also raises expectations. Those expectations are his curse, but only a truly great athlete could construct such expectations.
Nobody ever wonders why Kyle Orton has never won a Super Bowl.
Manning resides in a strange place. He will run on the field at Mile High Sunday as The Lead Dog in American sports after winning 13 or more regular-season games for the sixth time in his career. He's captured the nation's admiration and imagination after conquering a severe neck injury. He's revived a Broncos franchise that had fallen after a journey to the 2005 AFC title game.
Still, doubts surround him. He still, after his mountain of victories and honors, has much to prove. His brother, Eli, owns more Super Bowl rings. So does Peyton's arch-nemesis, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Sunday's game is about much more than the Brady-Manning rivalry, but what gives this game such delicious, enormous weight is this one-on-one matchup.
Only one of the quarterbacks will walk into football history as the ultimate winner of the early 21st century. And recent history leans heavily toward Brady.
Manning, the emperor of the regular season, trails Brady, Otto Graham, John Unitas, Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana and, yes, John Elway on the list of all-time greats in the playoffs. Elway walked into the sunset with a 14-7 playoff record, including a 5-1 record in AFC title games.
Manning's burden, I realize, does not seem fair. But this is the same burden that followed basketball's Wilt Chamberlain for two decades. He scored 100 points in a game. He averaged 50 points a game over the course of a season. He revolutionized the game. And yet ...
Wilt failed to win a title at Kansas. He struggled in his historical rivalry with center Bill Russell, the ultimate team warrior who won 11 titles in 13 seasons. Wilt, the superior talent, won "only" two.
I sat in a big room when Manning arrived in Colorado for his introductory news conference. Questions surround him now. Questions surrounded him then. He had undergone four surgeries on his neck and there was speculation he never would recreate the dominance of all those Indianapolis afternoons.
Manning has since admitted he wondered, too. He struggled, mightily, to overcome the limitations of his battered body. He lost three of his first five games as Broncos starter, and his passes often resembled wounded vultures.
Since then, he's won 24 of 28. He's become a Colorado folk hero. He's shown the sheer power of stubbornness when he refused to surrender to his injury. He's delivered Sunday afternoon thrills to millions of Broncos fans.
I understand if this mountain of accomplishments might seem enough. I understand those who ask why anyone would dare question Manning if he fails to deliver a victory on Sunday against Bill Belichick and his marauding Patriots.
But that's Manning's burden. A rare burden, one only a few athletes must carry.
The burden of greatness.