Monday, March 28, 2016

My 18 Favorite Peyton Manning Games, Pt. 7: #2

-2.) 2009 Week 10 - Patriots 34  @  Colts 35

Update: I'm not all that pleased looking back at what I wrote the day following the 4th and 2 Game, easily the most memorable regular season game in Peyton Manning's career, if not in the last 15 years of the NFL. This was at the blog's infancy - it just so happens my #3 and #2 game came during the first NFL season where I was writing. I don't know if anything has made me feel older than to go back and re-post something I wrote nearly 7 years ago. 

Some of this does not hold. The Patriots have won a Super Bowl since this game. Manning never did with the Colts. The Colts actually haven't beaten the Patriots since, losing their last game with Manning in Foxboro after Peyton nearly led another 31-14 comeback - that time without the aid of a 4th and 2 stop.

This game represents so many things, but mostly how over time during the Manning vs. Patriots rivalry, the mental edge completely switched. Early on, it was Manning getting fooled by Belichick and overall the Patriots being in their heads. That completely switched by 2009. Belichick was completely in awe of Manning, incapable of thinking clearly knowing he was not dealing with an ordinary player. I still believe the only QB who would make Belichick desperate enough to go for it on 4th and 2 is and was Peyton Manning.

History will always look back at this era as the Brady / Manning era, and it pleases me knowing that not only will Manning retire with the edge head-to-head in the playoffs, but will also have come out on top in their most memorable regular season meeting.

As for the game, I don't think I was ever more excited, to the point of absolute sleeplessness that night, about a result. The Colts had a great 8-0 start to the season, but for three quarters all that was meaningless. The Patriots rolled up and down the field. Brady to Moss looked unstoppable. But games are never over with Peyton Manning. Slowly the Colts and Manning reeled them in, got the fortunate break, and masterly finished it off with the pass from Manning to Wayne. It was a tremendous game, the first great one in Lucas Oil Stadium. The Colts and Patriots; Manning vs. Brady. They met once a year every year outside of each one's respective injuries. They played other good ones, but this was the true classic.

It was a game that inspired so much, one that made me realize the depths of Manning's mastery; the turning tides in a legendary rivalry, the limitless brazen brass balls of Bill Belichick, and the wonder of sports. It also gave me my first opportunity to write a long-form reactionary post - and for better or worse, I present The War of 18-12:


However, this is not all about Bill Belichick's decision. Not at all. This is more about the Colts getting outplayed for three quarters, looking like paper tigers, and then DOMINATING the Pats in the fouth quarter.

That said, I feel compelled to start with the 4th and 2 decision. It was an extremely risky decision, but one that was mathematically defendable. This was their scenario: punt and let the Colts drive 70 yards in two minutes and win the game, or go for it and either win the game or give it back to Manning at the 29 with two minutes to go. Now, the chances of the Pats winning (either making the two yards or stopping the Colts) are basically the same either way in a vaccuum, taking away the account of who they were playing and game scenario. The math states that converting a 4th and 2 is done roughly 63% of the time. Adding that to the chances of the Pats stopping the Colts if they do not convert the fourth down, which is roughly 40%, gives the chances of the Pats winning by going for it at a clean 77%. The Chances that the Colts drive 70 yards for the touchdown are roughly 30%, so the Pats have a better chance of winning going for it. That said, that does not adjust for the fact that the opposing QB is Peyton Manning, or that the Colts defense was winning nearly every important play in the fourth quarter. Anyway, it is a debatable call, but definitely not a brilliant move or a idiotic one. It was a risky one, and one that would have either coronated Belichick as the ballsiest coach of all time or the loser in the greatest football-related version of Russian Roullette.

Now, let's get to the actual game. Leaving the game, the general public's perception was "Pats Dominated", "Colts were lucky", "Belichick cost his team the game." This is complete bullshit. Complete. The Pats dominated a one and a half quarter portion of this game starting from the middle of the first through the end of the half. Their drives in this portion netted them touchdown, field goal, touchdown, touchdown and Indy's drive netted them Punt, Punt, Punt, touchdown (I'll throw in that touchdown just to make the amount of drives even). The Pats got 273 yards and the Colts got 91. Now, that is Florida vs Alaska A&M type domination but was just one and a half quarter. Here was the end of the third through the end of the game: Pats: touchdown (after the long Welker punt return), punt, field goal, downs. Here is Indy's drives in the same part of that game: touchdown, interception, touchdown, touchdown. In that part of the game the Pats got 54 yards and the Colts got 153. Pretty much equal domination. People always seem to overrate the team that jumps out to a big lead and underrate the team that made the comeback. Just becuase the Pats outscored the Colts in one stretch 24-7, does not mean the Colts cannot outscore them similarily. The Pats did not outplay the Colts for the entire game. Also, the Colts were not lucky. They probably score on that drive even if the Pats punted it to them. Finally, Belichick's decision was not the reason the Colts won, it was the reason the Pats did not win easily. Also, many of the big plays by the Pats early were schematic problems by the Colts, as they played a deep zone against Moss, instead of manning him up with safety shadow help like they did in 2007 when they held those Pats to 24. They can correct those problems. We all know that the arrogant Pats would not simply play ball-control, clock-draining offense and still try to pour on, and they were held to 10 points in the second half, when the Colts made the defensive adjustments.

The game was a total domination in the fourth quarter by the Colts and a total breakdown by the Patriots. The Patriots were simply outplayed for the entirety of the fourth quarter. The Patriots managed two first downs in the fourth quarter, and the Colts scored three touchdowns, spanning 153 yards in a total of five minutes and forty seconds. Contrary to popular belief, the Pats were not playing prevent for either of the first two touchdown drives. Manning made adjustments to what Belichick was doing, which was essentially doubling Clark and Wayne and forcing Garcon and Collie to beat them, and then Belichick had no answers. The only negative play was the interception which was a result of lack of communication. As for the Pats offense, what people failed to remember due to Belichick's boner, was their inability to gain yards when it mattered. Four times Brady threw on third or fourth down in that quarter, and he was 0-4. The Pats ran the ball six times for three (yes, THREE!!!) yards in the fourth quarter. The Colts defense dominated them. The Pats are one of the better teams at playing smart, clock-draining football in the fourth quarter (remember the 07 Title game against San Diego when they ran out the last 9 minutes of the game), but were simply awful. Even when the Colts handed them a short field, they went 5 and out, and kicked a field goal. It was awful. The Colts dominated when it mattered, in the fourth quarter. The reason the Colts were totally outplayed early on was schematic, and of course the Pats playing exceptional defensively and Moss playing like Moss. The reason the Colts dominated was great adjustments by the offense (again), and the defense changing schemes and dominating an awful Pats running game and suddenly plodding passing game. The Pats blew it, the Colts earned it. The Colts dominated them in the fourth quarter, and as anybody will tell you, that is the quarter that matters in a close game.

Now, this is where I will start to wax poetic about the rivalry at this point.

It is absolutely stunning how the dynamic of this rivalry has completely changed in the past four years. From 2001-2004, and mostly in 2003-2004, the Pats were the team that had the no-name defense, with street defensive backs like Randall Gay and a young Asante Samuel, and Jarvis Green, and the quadro of stout, smart linebackers. The Colts were the flashy team with high-powered offense and a defense that was fine against the Dolphins or the Titans but could not hold up against the big boys. The games, at least the regular season games in 2003-2004, played out to a diametric opposite of Sunday Night's. In both meetings the Colts "outplayed" the Pats, coming one yard away from winning the 2003 game, before Willie McGinest stoning Edgerrin James on the one yard line (if anything personified those Pats teams, and how the physically and mentally intimidated the Colts, it was that McGinest tackle and the play in the 2004 Divisional when Tedy Bruschi literally ripped the ball out of the hands of Dominic Rhodes). Then, a year later in the 2004 game, the Pats were outplayed, except Manning threw an interception in the red zone and James fumbled at the 2 yard line (much like Maroney did), and missed a 48 yard field goal to send it into overtime. Now, all the Colts fans, including myself, thought "they got lucky, the Colts were two plays away, they will win come playoff time." Then, come playoff time, it did not happen. Belichick's defense was in Manning's head. Our defense was helpless against Brady. Each time we played, regardless of how the stats played out, how the game played out, when we looked at the scoreboard, the Colts had fewer points than the Patriots. It was a matter of life, we could roll against the Bengals, and the Bears, but when we needed to man-up and fight, the Colts wanted to fence, the Pats wanted to box.

It is crazy how it has changed. The Pats are now the high-flying team, with the insanely good receivers and the QB with all the stats. They are now the team whose defense could shut down the Titans and the Bucs, but are just average against good offensive teams. The Colts are a team missing many offensive and defensive starters, but have Manning. They play next-man-up to a Patriot level on defense. They are now the smarter, more focused, more tough football team. The Colts are the team now who execute in crunch time. Save for the 2007 game, where the Pats came back valiantly from 10 down in the fourth quarter, which can be contrasted with the 2003 game when the Colts nearly came back from a 21 defecit in the last 20 minutes as the exception to the norm, the Colts have dominated since 2005. For all the "Manning can't beat the Pats" stories that circulated the media-world much like swine-flu is supposed to infiltrate the human-world, there should be similar "Brady can't beat the Colts" headlines now. It was not Manning, but the Colts that could not mentally play smart in late, close games, and now it is the Pats, not Brady. Much like Belichick was clearly in Manning's head in 2003 and 2004, Manning is now in Belichick's head. Belichick can say what he wants, but if the team they were playing was 30 other teams, he punts on 4th and 2. It might be respect, it might be abject fear, but it is really both. Manning has owned Belichick in late game situations, save for that 2007 game. Remember, Manning came within one yard of leading the Colts back from a 31-10 deficit with 20 minutes left in 2003, and then overcame a 21-3 deficit in the 2006 Title Game. Now, he has done the trifecta, coming back from a 34-17 4th quarter deficit. Belichick now knows that games are NEVER over against Peyton. Never. He supposedly preached "60 Minutes" till the cocks crowed after the 2006 meltdown, but it is stunning that it happened again, and although the stakes were certainly greater than, the order of diffuculty of the comeback was more this time. These teams may very well meet again in the playoffs, but I am sure that Manning and the Colts have the mental edge.

In 2003 and 2004, we entered those playoff games with an offensive arrogance, "we cannot be stopped... pffft Patriots defense". We entered those games with the knowledge that we were centimeters away from winning the earlier game. We were slaughtered like lambs in those playoff games (although it must be said that the 2003 Title game was amazing, since even though there was really shoddy officiating, and we handed the Pats 5 turnovers and a safety, Manning had the ball with the opportunity to tie the game in the fourth quarter). This is now the opposite. Pats fans can console themselves in their perceived domination, the can console themselves that they nearly beat the Colts, that they should have, would have. They can enter their game off thier 31-20 beating of Cincy or whatever it may be. They will not win. We have the mental edge. The players know it. If the Pats would win a game against the Colts, it would have been this one, with Gonzalez and Hayden out, with Garcon playing one of his worst games, with Manning throwing two picks of uncharacteristic natures, and with the defense playing a scheme so irrational that it deservedly lended us to spotting them a 24-7 advantage. Yet, at the end of the day, the same team was ahead. The same team pulled out the game. The same team won every critical fourth down battle, stopped the high-powered Pats offense when it mattered late, and took advantage of mistakes and stuck a stake in the Pats home-field advantage aspirations. I could have written those last five sentences and switched "Pats" with "Colts" and I could have been describing a 2003 game, when there was, as we know now, a mental edge that the Pats just had. It has all changed, and it is so sweet. Now, the Pats want to fence, and we want to box.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

My 18 Favorite Peyton Manning Games, Pt 6: #3

3.) 2009 AFC Championship Game - Jets 17 @ Colts 30

I wrote surprisingly little about this game at the time. The post was entitled 'The Beatification', it was supposed to be a 2-parter, with the second being 'The Canonization' after the Colts won Super Bowl XLIV. Of course, they lost that game, and a weird five year journey started right after. Because I wrote so little, I will put my updated thoughts after the post:


Jay Feely split the uprights, 17-6 Jets. Down 11, to the NFL's best defense, and I was not the least bit nervous, and the sole reason is the man pulling the trigger for the league's version of an AK-47. Manning. That was all I needed to know and to see to make me feel like this normally large lead was just the Colts spotting a team points. I've seen Manning come back from 35-14, 27-10, 31-14, 17-0, 15-0 and 31-10. I've seen him come back from 21-3 in that same round of the playoffs, against a team with a better offense and a defense led by a more master-mindery mastermind. I've seen him lead the largest comeback in Championship Game history. This was nothing. I was not surprised that within 10 game minutes, the Colts were up, sweeping the leg of any Karate-Kid like upset that the Jets were planning. It was over. Manning had come, the game was done.

Pierre Garcon was great and so was Austin Collie, but in the end it is all about Manning. The Jets did a great job of taking out Manning's top-2 targets, contracts and injuries "took out" two other top Manning targets by week 2 (Marvin and Anthony Gonzalez (remember him, you will next year)). Manning just passed to a second-year player with three catches coming into this year, and a 24-year old rookie. I now laugh at the heated debate that media people were able to have about two years ago. Brady vs Manning defined a decade, but that decade ended a bit too soon. That debate has been put to rest. I don't think anyone rationally can say that Brady is the better player. Essentially, Manning had his Welker (Gonzo) out for the year, and lost his Gaffney (Harrison 2008 version), and was left throwing to his Moss (Wayne) and Sam Aiken and Julian Edelmen for a whole year. All Manning did was win a fourth MVP and win every game he played in. He came back from down 17 twice, including doing it in one quarter. He won a game where his offense had the ball for 15 minutes. He led four straught fourth quarter comebacks and seven overall. He hasn't been beaten. He is now beatified, a Saint of football. The last step is almost here.

Rex Ryan was football's hottest defensive mind. He had schemes and blitzes that could put nightmares in any QB's head. He was cocky and cool, confidence spewing from that gregarious gut. He was helpless. Rex Ryan could have tried whatever he wanted, Manning was not going to be stopped. Manning's throw to Austin Collie was as beautiful a throw of any I have ever seen. I have really watched the NFL for 10 years now, and each Sunday I watch Manning play is one more day that I am spoiled. Manning will not play forever, and when he eventually retires, I will have to watch the Jim Harbuagh's and Jeff George's of the world QB the Colts. However, when those dark days come, I can always pop up this game (I will go to any length to get it on DVD), and watch QB as it is meant to be played.


It is tough to read back at that piece six years later, his career now over. I cringe at how much I wrote about his entire 2009 season, and that performance putting the Manning / Brady debate to rest. In 2009, I still enjoyed having the debate. After he lost the Super Bowl, then shockingly left Indianapolis and had to rebuild his career and fight off 'noodle arm' jokes for a half-decade, it became less about Brady Manning than it did just wanting Peyton to win another Super Bowl. He has that Super Bowl. Given that, I can start to look back fondly at his masterpiece.

I truly believe that the 2009 AFC Championship Game was Peyton Manning's best career performance. Advanced stats go a long way in telling us that. By most statistical calculations, the 2009 Jets were the best defense in the NFL. By my most favored advanced stats website, Football Outsiders, the Jets ranked as a Top-10 defense in their entire time rating teams. This was a great defense, one that rated quite close to the 2013 Seahawks, or even 2015 Broncos. And Manning destroyed them. He was the only QB that year to throw for 300 yards, and one of just two to have a passer rating above 100. He was brilliant.

Rex Ryan actually one a couple of the early rounds. He sacked Manning twice on the Colts first two possessions, and the Jets did stiffen in the red zone (though one of those was due to a clear mis-communication on the part of the Colts offense inside the 5-yard line). But slowly Manning figured everything out, not only about the Jets defense, but at that moment it seemed he figured out Quarterbacking.

There have been many stories told about that game, from literal audio clips of Rex Ryan being in awe of the Manning performance during teh game, to a long cited story in Colts-fan circles of Manning recognizing a particular coverage formation from a 2005 Baltimore regular season game (when Rex was in Baltimore), and blitzed that defense three straight plays for passes to Austin Collie for 80 yards and a key TD to make it 13-17 before halftime. Manning threw deep when the Jets played tight, masterfully called out blitzes and checked to the run. Everything was in his control on that day. He threw perfect touch passes on fades, and bullets 45-yards deep. It was his magnum opus.

When Manning was active, and fighting to get that 2nd ring, I always felt slightly sad when remembering games like these. They were amazing performances, undoubtedly, but at the end of the day these seasons ended with pangs of despair. This season ended with, in terms of his legacy, maybe the worst loss of his career. So much of Manning's career is different if the Colts beat the Saints. He gets that second ring six years earlier. He caps off maybe his most incredible personal season. I still don't think he ever leaves Indianapolis. I invested a lot of time - even created this blog - during that 2009 season. Super Bowl XLIV would have been the cherry on top, but now with his second ring in hand, I can sit back and appreciate the sundae and just think of this game against the Jets as the cherry.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Shameless, Ultimately Fruitless, Rat-Race for the World's Longest Flight

The longest flight in the world for a long time was Singapore Airlines’ Singapore – Newark non-stop flight. It checked in between 16:30 – 18:30 (depending on wind and direction). The flight clocked in at 9,534 miles, well longer than any flight previously. Rising oil prices and an inefficient 4-engine aircraft, ultimately made the flight unviable and it was ended in 2013 (I wrote about this here: Well, reduced oil prices and new aircraft have resurrected the flight. Using the A350-900LR aircraft, Singapore Airlines will be re-launching the New York non-stop route in 2018 (along with their old Singapore – Los Angeles flight that was the #2 longest in the world when it was ended). That flight will return to being the longest in the world. However, until we get to 2018, there is an incredible rat-race going on with everyone’s favorite subsidized Airlines, the ME3 (Emirates, Etihad, Qatar) to hold that title.

The current leader is Qantas’s Sydney – Dallas flight, clocking in 8,578 miles. It’s held that position unchanged since the Singapore flight ended. The #2 flight on the list, Delta’s Atlanta – Johannesburg (8,439 miles) was also unchanged, but the list of flights right behind it have basically all been created as a result of the ME3 introducing non-stop flights to various US cities. Flight from ME3 hubs to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas and Houston make up 10 of the Top-16 flights. Most have been introduced since 2010. But things are basically being escalated to a 10 right now.

It started a little innoucuously, with Emirates announcing plans to start a non-stop flight from Dubai to Panama City, a flight that would be 8,588 miles, literally just 10 more than the current holder. That flight never happened, the Emirates got the press and the media attention for the new ‘longest flight’. Most people were like ‘Wow, look at Emirates’, but us more skeptical and interested folks were a little more interested in the ‘why’, or even the ‘how, as in ‘how does this flight make any sense?’ It really goes into the central driver of the overall global aviation industry concern of the ‘ME3’.

The ME3, particularly Emirates, essentially runs its business based on connecting place to place through its hub purely as a point of transit. By its convenient location, the Middle East comes right in between a lot of major routes. It is a natural stop between the Western Hemisphere and South Asia, and between Southeast Asia / Australia and Europe. It also works to connect millions into Africa. How Emirates can combine this business model with $750 flights from New York to India is beyond madness, but whatever. Let’s put aside the shadiness and the claims of subsidies and government backing and all the messines. That’s the essentials. Now, we have to ask ourselves, where are these people in Panama City flying to that they need to connect in Dubai?

Other than the extremely small population of people in Latin America that would be flying to the Indian Sub-Continent, no one else would be better served flying through Dubai. Panama City folk would be better served going through Australia to Southeast Asia than through Dubai. All other areas (Europe, Africa) can be reached directly. That flight actually never happened – quietly Emirates ushered it away… and replaced it with a more ridiculous flight.

On March 2nd, Emirates flew non-stop from Dubai to Auckland. That makes some sort of sense, and at 8,824 miles, it becomes the world’s longest. There are people who need to go from Auckland to Europe. Granted, it is basically as quick to do so through the US (Auckland – London is shorter through Los Angeles than through Dubai), but at least there is a market. However, the best part is at the same time, not to be outdone, Qatar Airways announced they too would start service to Auckland (9,032 miles), and start service to Santiago (8,966 miles). The Santiago flight is just absurd. Again, the only people who would ever need to take this flight are people flying to India. It is quicker through Australia to both Southeast and North Asia (Singapore, Bangkok or Tokyo). There is just no one who will take this flight.

But that is the thing, when you have an airline that can basically print money (forget the potentially odd reasons why they are so able to print that money) you can open flights for the sole purpose of flying the longest flight in the world. I have no doubt someone in Emirates realized that Panama City is slightly further away from Dubai than Sydney is from Dallas, and then someone from Qatar said, ‘OK, it’s time to drop the Auckland hammer!’

And that is why I kind of love the fact that Singapore Airlines, a good two years before the flight will be launched, and a good 18 months before they will even get the aircraft to fly it, announced they are re-launching the Singapore – Los Angeles (8,770 miles – would actually be beaten by these Santiago / Auckland flights) and Singapore – New York (9,537 miles). The ME3 is basically forced to do all of this self-congratulating and record holding knowing that in 18 months, it will get stripped away.

Sadly, it will be the same reason of why the Middle East airlines are so effective (slave labor and government subsidies… I kid) is the reason why they’ll never hold the title: they are in the perfect place for all cities. It is hard to find a destination that is further than 9,537 miles from Doha or Dubai or Abu Dhabi. There are tons in the 8,000 – 9,000 range, which is what they’ve focused on, but the jump from 9,000 (Doha – Auckland) to 9,537 is a big one.

The above map shows every place within 9,537 miles from Dubai (DXB), and the places further than that are darkened. Basically the vast expanse of the Pacific where no one lives. There is nothing real in that area unless they want to fly to Easter Island non-stop. Now, let’s look at the same map from New York (JFK):

Obviously, this is based on Singapore being the future holder, so it is on the edge of the circle, but there are a few quick takeaways:

  1. Singapore is really far away. Somehow, Auckland is closer. Auckland is actually closer to New York than it is to the Middle East.
  2. There is a chance we get a longer flight than New York - Singapore, in that we can get New York - Sydney

Utlimately, unless we get an aircraft that can reliably fly Sydney - New York (9,950 miles) or better than that, Sydney - London (10,573 miles), New York - Singapore is probably the limit. I call out those Sydney flights because they are the only logical flights that are longer than the New York - Singapore flight taht actually connect two large hubs that may have the non-stop demand to have the route be viable. These are not fake routes like Santiago - Doha. These are real connections between massive cities and financial hubs. That said, they probably won't happen. The airlines that would potentially fly these routes have to play by the rules of real business. They won't have flights just for the sake of having them.

And that is the cruel irony in what hte ME3 is doing now. They're all fighting to have the title of Longest Flight in the World, a title that meant so much to real airlines that Singapore Airlines gave it up willingly in 2013. They better get it now, and market hte hell out of it, because the old title older is coming in 2015 to reclaim its glory, and unless the tectonic plates speed up and push California out into the mid-Pacific, there is nothing the ME3 will be able to do about it.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

My 18 Favorite Peyton Manning Games, Pt. 5: Game #4

4.) 2008 Week 10 - Colts 24 @ Steelers 20

This is in a way an indefensible pick. It didn't have a huge outcome on the season. Flip the result, and the Steelers go 13-3 and still get the #2 seed, the Colts go 11-5 and still get the #5 seed. But coming right in the middle of my personal favorite (ad most invested) NFL regular season, it holds a special place in my heart - and my mind; my memories of Peyton Manning. I've written often about the great 2008 season. A strange season, it followed a season so driven by its great teams. 2007 was defined by the Patriots chase of perfection, but also right below a trio of 13-3 teams, the Colts, Cowboys and Packers. In 2008, there were no great teams. But a lack of truly great teams left us with a slew of good ones. Coming into this Week 10 matchup, the 4-4 Colts were not one of them.

They had just beaten the Tom Brady-less Patriots 18-15 the week prior. Peyton Manning ruptured his bursa sac in training camp, didn't play at all in the preseason, and then looked a slightly more mobile, youthful version of the player who spraying balls all over the field this year. The Steelers entered the game at 6-2, with the NFL's best defense. The Colts had a 5-year streak of 12+ wins, and math told us that a loss in Pittsburgh means the streak is over. Given that the streak went to 7 in 2009, it obviously wasn't over.

It was a very weird time for Colts fans in the lead-up to this game, and even weirder for me. The season started, as morbid as this sounds, with such great promise with Tom Brady tearing his ACL less than 10 minutes into the first NFL Sunday. But the Colts were not taking advantage, they were struggling, losing winnable games and even getting pounded once. But for me, this was a transformative year as a fan. Like most humans, the exploits of the '07 Patriots ramped up my interest in the NFL, but the exploits of the other 31 teams, with the Big, Bad, Pats essentially sidelined, my interest exploded. I had finished my SATs / APs and all other grades that mattered leading into Senior year, and my Senioritis, coupled with more free time and freedom than usual, allowed me to really sink my teeth into the 2008 NFL season, and thusly do so with defense also.

I've written about how I really am a fan of defense at heart, and in a season somewhat defined by the defenses dominating (the best teams were mainly all defense-first), teh Steelers were the best unit. They had the best rush defense and the, somewhat surprisingly, best pass defense. This was not going to be an easy game going into it - but I had faith in a Peyton Manning still recuperating. I had faith in their resilience.

That is not a word one normally ascribed to the Colts. Despite their comebacks, or their run to a Super Bowl beating the NFL's three best defenses in 2006 back-to-back-to-back, the Colts were not seen as the type of team that could walk into the home of the league's best defense and will their way to a win, but that is exactly what Manning and Co. pulled off in this game. For much of the game, the Colts offense looked much like it did for the first 8 games of the season, slightly off and disconnected. Manning threw into the ground, missed Marvin Harrison by a half step on a half dozen deep posts, and lucked their way into their first score, a throw that probably should have been intercepted but fell to Reggie Wayne for a long TD. But the defense kept them in it.

They picked off Roethlisberger three times, including a huge one right before the half to lead to a Colts TD to make it 17-14. They had a huge goal-line stand in the 4th quarter, highlighted by a stone cold stop by Eric Foster. Guys like Kiewan Ratliff had big plays. It was the Colts defense at its most resourceful as well. But as always, it came down to Peyton. Despite his issues that year, or even in that game, he made a few great throws. The final score was a perfectly arched lob-swing pass to recently re-signed Dominic Rhodes, right after the outstretched arms of Troy Polamalu, to take the 24-20 lead.

It wasn't the prettiest game, and it wasn't from a noted rival of Manning (the Colts / Broncos and Steelers played oddly few times in the Manning era), but it was a game that meant so much and showed so much of what the Colts really were during the Manning era. It wasn't about the fireworks and the comebacks. Somewehre around 2006, they did become tougher, more ale to compete in these types of games. Manning could gut it out, tough it out, ugly it out, on the road, against the league's best defense, and come out on top. In my favorite season, it stood out as my favorite Colts game. Most of the games on my Top-10 will be remembered forever as integral parts of Manning's legacy. This won't, but for me it always will be representative of all that made the Peyton Manning era more fulfilling than anyone will ever remember.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Madness 2016: 16 Thoughts Before the Sweet 16

16.) This has the chance to go down as one of the better wire-to-wire tournaments. To me, the last two great tournaments were 2013 and 2010, both won by unremarkable (in terms of pro talent) #1 seeds in Louisville and Duke. They had tons of upsets, lower seeds reaching the Final Four (Butler in 2010, Wichita State in 2013), good late-round games, and an exciting National Championship Game. My personal bar to cross in 2005, and while the 2016 tourney has a lot to do to match that '05 one, it definitely hit the marks on the first weekend.

15.) 24 hours later, I'm still not sure how Northern Iowa lost that game. Maybe it was just cruel karmic payback for their lucky win against Texas in the 1st round. How can a team lose after holding a 12-point lead with 45 seconds to go? How can a team make that up without even fouling. How can a team screw up four different in-bounds plays? The only two games in my memory that compare were nowhere near close in terms of time to make the comeback, but the larger stakes make them memorable. First was the '05 Elite Eight game between Illinois and Arizona, where Illinois made up a 15-point deficit in four minutes. Second was Kansas's 9-point comeback in the last 1:45 against Memphis in the '08 Title Game. Still, those are in the realm of possible. 12 points in 45 seconds is not.

14.) I want John Calipari to apologize for that bizarre rant on ESPN on selection Sunday for getting a #4 seed, or at least say that Indiana was as badly underseeded. Over the years, I've kind of grown to accept, if not even like, Calipari's brazen way of working the system. He knows he's not educating kids, he's building a monster. Still, they weren't that great this year. They deserved a #4 seed, and losing to a beatable #5 seed kind of proves that. Still, this is the first time when making the tournament Calipari has left before the Elite Eight since 2004. End of a remarkable run for Coach Cal.

13.) The dual-finishes of Northern Iowa - Texas and St. Joseph's - Cincinnati was about the perfect way to end a 1st round. Normally, apart for the few giant upsets (and we got those too this year, with a #15, #14 and #13 winning), the first round has tons of upsets and sloppy play. But that pair of two games, both ending after midnight out east, was a great way to whet all our appetites for the second round on. Obviously, I felt bad for Texas, but I felt even worse for Cincinnati. That kid will always know if he was .001 seconds quicker in his jump, they go to overtime. What a dreadful way to lose.

12.) I always love the random alpha dogs that show up and make March great each ear. Obviously, Buddy Hield is leading the pack, especially after that much-needed 29 points in the 2nd half in the 2nd round. He's the best pure scorer in the field right now, and he's been great through two games. However, let's pour one out for two guys who lost admirably. First, Steven Walkup was just a boss in both those games - specifically the 1st round upset of West Virginia. He was almost equally as good against Notre Dame. Not sure I like that two of the best Cinderella stories were eliminated by power-conference teams winning in dramatic fashion. The other player I want to pour one out for is Deandre' Bembry, who has just all the swagger, with the hair, to the name, to the hangin' apostrophe. Everything about him just screamed East-Coast BOSS.

11.) In another way to compare this tournament to 2005 (my personal favorite March Madness ever, and I would argue the best in terms of wire-to-wire brilliance), I don't know why they gave a random #1 seed to a Pac-12 (then Pac-10) team. In '05, it was Washington State, led by Brandon Roy. A lot of people were surprised when they were given the #1 seed out West. That year, they put the team most thought should be the 4th #1 seed (Wake Forest - led by Chris Paul), and that team promptly lost in the second round. Just like this year the #5 overall seed was Michigan State, who lost in the first round. Anyway, Oregon has been remarkably un-impressive in its 2nd round win, and I really fear for them against Duke.

10.) Hard to believe this is Maryland's first Sweet 16 since 2003!? I realize they haven't always had the best of teams during that era, and moved on from the Gary Williams era, but how quickly the momentum from their back-to-back Final 4 teams in '01 and '02 fizzled out. Yet, to me, it is even funnier that the year they finally break through is one that has been thoroughly underwhelming for their fans. This team was #2 preseason, and was Top-5 for much of the first couple months. They had such high expectations and failed to really impress. Well, now they get their chance to show the promise they had in the preseason by taking on the #1 overall seed.

9.) It is fun that nearly every year the talking heads and Bracketologists yell about one team or the other and generally that team often ends up doing quite well. The most noted example was Jay Bilas almost losing his lungs yelling about VCU's inclusion in 2011, and then the Rams went out and reached the Final 4. This year, it was probably Tulsa that got the most derision, but there was a lot for Syracuse, who did really poorly when Boeheim was out. Well, now they are in the Sweet 16 with two really impressive performances.

8.) Having a huge upset in the first round is always fun. The last two times a #15 beat a #2 it was truly memorable. First came Lehigh's amazing win over Duke (quick note, about that Lehigh team, they starred one Mr. CJ McCollum) which is fun because, you know, Duke. Next was Florida Gulf-Coast's win over Georgetown which was fun because of Dunk City. This time, though, it was a little sour. Not that Middle Tennessee State was a bad team, and they did hang with Syracuse for a bit, but it was just odd seeing a Tom Izzo team go down that early. They rarely ever lose to lower-seeded teams. They rarely lose to double-digit seeds (last time was George Mason in 2006). They should have been playing deep into March. That said, Michigan State has rarely made a deep run when everyone expected it, so expect them to be in the last 8 next year.

7.) This is now I believe Year #5 of the current TV format with CBS / TNT / TBS /TruTV splitting games, and I've really grown to enjoy it. It is a great advantage to being able to watch any game live. It is a bit distracting to see the scores up at top and not know if you want to switch or not, but it is just good to know you will never miss anything if you want. I also love how far they've taken the 'Boss Button' on the computer streaming, now to have a fake notes page if you are in class to go along with the fake powerpoint slide. Just great customer marketing. It is just great to hear those stats each year on how much money is lost in lack of production the first two days of the tournament.

6.) I still hate that they broke up the Verne Lundqust and Bill Raftery pairing to have Raftery join Nantz. I do like Raft's presence on the #1 team, making Nantz more enjoyable in general, but I'm sorry, you don't break up the Verne / Raft combination. They were so good together, which such amazing chemistry. It was one of the most pleasant broadcast experiences that I've ever listened to in sports. I still like both in their separate assignments, and I think Jim Spanarkel is a decent replacement for Raftery with Verne, but I would easily concede Nantz's spot as permanent #1 play-by-play if they pair him with the able Spanarkel and leave Raft and Verne alone.

5.) I've often sung the praises of the Inside the NBA folks, and while it is so easy to criticize the job they do in their college basketall coverage, I actually think Barkley and Kenny have gotten a lot better. Do they know the sport as much as Seth Davis, or Clark Kellogg? No, but they are at least trying now. In the early years of this experiment, Charles used to basically discount any underdogs chance and go with the more blue-blood team; a methodology he's luckily left behind. They've built some good chemistry with Greg Gumbel and Clark Kellogg. It isn't perfect. It isn't close to what they are on Inside the NBA, but they've improved their knowledge and command of talking College Basketball by orders of magnitude from 3-4 years ago.

4.) This would be the year that Gonzaga makes the Final Four, wouldn't it? They have had so many Top-4 seeds over the past decade and never so much as made an Elite Eight, but now they get a #10 seed, and then one of the weaker Virginia / Iowa State teams in the Elite Eight. They are probably underdogs against either, but Gonzaga has looked really impressive through two games (admittedly, so has Syracuse) and the opportunity is there. I don't think this is a unique thought. It was probably created the moment Middle Tennessee State knocked off the Spartans and opened up the bottom half of the Midwest Regional. I really hope they do it, if only because they would be the most ironic 'Cinderalla' Final 4 team ever.

3.) Kansas is really good. They were in cruise control against Austin Peay, and while UCONN made a decent run in the 2nd half to cut it to nine, the Kansas that played the first half and went up 44-24 was the scariest team in the nation. Bill Self has never had a great shooting team, but he has one now, and too his credit, he hasn't shied away from that even though he hasn't been one to adopt a three-point shooting mentality. They took a while to really get going, but the Jayhawks settled on a rotation, and are really benefitting from Wayne Selden's slow progression. He was the third bannana two years ago when Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid came on board, and his inability to match those two has really helped Kansas this year.

2.) In 2005, ultimate the two best teams in the country made the Final. Illinois and UNC were the two best all year, and the two best in March and staged a great final in April. To me, that was the best part of the tournament, that at the end, after all the ridiculous upsets and comebacks and craziness that March of 2005 delivered, we got a National Championship with the top two teams. If that does repeat, while 2016 Kansas and UNC don't have the firepower that 2005 Illinois and UNC did, they are the two best teams. And Man, the storylines. Since Roy Williams left Kansas, he's played the Jayhawks three times in the tournament. Once was a second round game two years ago (Kansas won), but the other two were big stakes. Twice, underdog Kansas teams beat UNC, first to make the National Title Game in 2008, beating UNC by 19 (they led 40-12 after 13 minutes), and then another Kansas win in 2012 in the Elite Eight. Nothing, though, would match this one if it were to happen.

1.) Finally, I just can't wait for this upcoming weekend. After Divisional Weekend in the NFL, this is the 2nd best Sports Weekend of the year, to me. It is just two games at a time on Thursday and Friday (solo games on Saturday and Sunday), all with high stakes. We get blue-blood teams and matchups (UNC - Indiana, Kansas - Maryland), one matchup of dueling double-digit seeds (Syracuse - Gonzaga). We get everything. Hopefully some drama and good play can be added. The great recent tournaments (2005, 2010) really had remarkable middle weekends, with buzzer beaters, close games, comebacks, good play. We can potenitally have that in what has been a flat (in terms of talent disparity) year across the Nation. As the great philosopher of our times, Bart Scott, once said, 'Can't Wait'

Saturday, March 19, 2016

My 18 Favorite Peyton Manning Games, Pt. 4: Game #5

5.) 2003 Week 5 - Colts 38 @ Buccaneers 35

Let's take a little trip back to October 6th, 2003. This is probably the last weekend in the NFL that wouldn't be about Brady & Manning. The Patriots had lost and fallen to 2-2 (their last loss until Halloween - 2004!). The Colts were 4-0, and were making a trip to play the defending champion Buccaneers, in Tony Dungy's homecoming. The NFL was at a weird time in 1999-2002. The Rams were the best team in that stretch, them or the Raiders. Defense first teams were dominating. The Patriots '01 title was seen as a random blip. The NFL had lost a set of hall of fame QBs in this stretch, from Young to Aikman to Marino. Brady and Manning were coming on in 2003, and it really started here, in the first public, audacious, comeback by Peyton Manning.

Like so many games in the Manning era, the game was really highlighted by the Colts starting slow and figuring things out in real time. Their drive chart is hilarious, starting with five straight punts, and overall seven failed drives out of nine, before a finish of TD, TD, TD, FG. The game highlighted everything amazing about the Peyton Manning era in Indianapolis. Some horrendous defense (Keenan McCardell caught two TD passes, one for 74 yards on the second drive), brutal luck (the Buccaneers scored their second TD when after throwing an interception, the Bucs forced a fumble on the return and ran the fumble back for a TD), and of course iffy special teams play (more on this particular Vanderjagt special later). Of course, it also showed the resilience of the Colts in the Manning era, their ability to never stop playing and being able to scare any team even when they are up 21 points.

The comeback started after the Buccaneers scored a TD to make it 28-7 on a ridiculous 7-minute drive (another patented element of any great Colts game), the Colts scored a quick TD on a run by 'The Other' Ricky Williams, which the Buccaneers followed with a 6-minute drive to nowhere, punting back to the Colts. The Colts, with 6:42 to go, down 28-14 started their comeback... by immediately throwing a pick-six to Ronde Barber. There was 5:22 on the clock and now the Colts stared down a 35-14 deficit. They were a young team playing the defending champs on a Monday Night - back when that was the premier football night. It was another example of a team flying a little too close to the sun. Except Peyton Manning, who went 13-20 for 181 yards and 2 TDs to finish the game, and Marvin Harrison, who had 4 catches for 71 yards, grew into even hotter stars.

The comeback actually started with a special team play that benefited the Colts, with a 90-yard kick return that set them up at the 12 yard line. Four plays later, the Colts cut it do 35-21. Then they got the on-side kick back, and seven plays later, Manning hit Harrison on a beautiful 28 yard TD throw, arced beautifully above the Buccaneers cover-2. The real beauty of the drive, and another hallmark of the Colts in the Manning era, was that the 7-play drive to fifty seconds. No one operated more quickly. Going that fast allowed them to kick off, and then get the third TD drive that highlighted a 52-yard throw to Harrison again. It took 4:32, and the Colts had tied it at 35.

OT was not quick, the Colts played pretty much perfect football against a great cover-2 performance. Their game-winning drive was a sign of the Colts growing up, 14 plays, 6:06 off the clock. No play longer than 16 yards. It was beautiful, it was controlled. It set up Mike Vanderjagt with a 40-yard field goal, which of course he missed. And that is where 'leaping' became a known penalty. Simeon Rice was penalized for jumping and landing on the back of a defensive player. By rule, that is a foul, half the distance to the goal, and a 40-yard field goal became a 29-yard field goal, which Vanderjagt promptly clanged off the upright, but it fell in, ending the largest comeback ever in the last five minutes.

The 2003 Colts started the modern team. That was the first year where both Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark contributed. It was Manning's first MVP season, and the first great year with Dungy. It started a string of seven straight 12+ win seasons. It was the first year they would win a playoff game. WIth the Patriots goint 17-2 en route to a Super Bowl, it really was the first year of the Brady / Manning NFL. It started a 13-year stretch where teh NFL got more popular and bigger than ever, and I don't know if that is the case if the Colts lose this game. Even if that is somewhat overanalyzing one game's impact on a baker's dozen of NFL seasons, maybe we can draw that line from the legacy of Peyton Manning back to the leaping of Simeon Rice.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

2016 Madness: My Bracket

We interrupt this Peyton Manning memorial to bring you my 2016 March Madness picks:

South Regional

1st Round

(1) Kansas over (16) Austin Peay
(9) UCONN over (8) Colorado
(5) Maryland over (12) South Dakota St.
(4) California over (13) Hawaii
(6) Arizona over (11) Wichita St.
(3) Miami over (14) Florida
(10) Temple over (7) Iowa
(2) Villanova over (15) UNC Asheville

2nd Round

(1) Kansas over (9) UCONN
(5) Maryland over (4) California
(6) Arizona over (3) Miami
(2) Villanova over (10) Temple

West Region

1st Round

(1) Oregon over (16) Whoever
(8) St. Joseph's over (9) Cincinnati
(5) Baylor over (12) Yale
(4) Duke over (13) UNC-Wilmington
(11) Northern Iowa over (6) Texas
(3) Texas A&M over (14) Green Bay
(7) Oregon State over (10) VCU
(2) Oklahoma over (15) Cal-Bakersfield

2nd Round

(1) Oregon over (8) St. Joseph's
(5) Baylor over (4) Duke
(11) Northern Iowa over (3) Texas A&M
(2) Oklahoma over (7) Oregon State

East Regional

1st Round

(1) UNC over (16) Florida Gulf-Coast
(9) Providence over (8) USC
(5) Indiana over (12) Chatanooga
(4) Kentucky over (13) Stony Brook
(6) Notre Dame over (11) Not SUre
(3) West Virginia over (14) Stephen F. Austin
(10) Pittsburgh over (7) Wisconsin
(2) Xavier over (15) Weber State

2nd Round

(1) UNC over (9) Providence
(4) Kentucky over (5) Indiana
(3) West Virginia over (6) Notre Dame
(2) Xavier over (10) Pittsburgh

Midwest Regional

1st Round

(1) Virginia over (16) Hampton
(9) Butler over (8) Texas Tech
(5) Purdeu over (12) Arkansas Little-Rock
(13) Iona over (4) Iowa State
(11) Gonzaga over (6) Seton Hall
(3) Utah over (14) Fresno
(10) Syracuse over (7) Dayton
(2) Michigan St. over (15) Middle Tennessee

2nd Round

(1) Virginia over (9) Butler
(5) Purdue over (13) Iona
(11) Gonzaga over (3) Utah
(2) Michigan St. over (10) Syracyse

Sweet 16

(S1) Kansas over (S5) Maryland
(S6) Arizona over (S2) Villanova

(W1) Oregon over (W5) Baylor
(W2) Oklahoma over (W11) Northern Iowa

(E1) UNC over (E4) Kentucky
(E3) West Virginia over (E2) Xavier

(M5) Purdue over (M1) Virginia
(M2) Michigan St. over (M11) Gonzaga

Elite 8

(S1) Kansas over (S6) Arizona
(W2) Oklahoma over (W1) Oregon
(E1) UNC over (E3) West Virginia
(M2) Michigan St. over (M5) Purdue

Final 4

(S1) Kansas over (W2) Oklahoma
(E1) UNC over (M2) Michigan St.

National Championship 

(S1) Kansas over (E1) UNC

Saturday, March 12, 2016

My 18 Favorite Peyton Manning Games, Pt. 3: #8 - #6

8.) 2013 AFC Championship - Patriots 16 @ Broncos 26

Over-time, this will become the AFC Championships Game between Manning and Brady that people forget about. The first will always be remembered for Manning's and the Colts' meltdown and Bill Polian 'changing the rules'.  The last will be remembered for the Broncos incredible defensive performance and for it being 'the last rodeo'. The second will always be remembered because it was one of the best games of all time and changed everything we knew about the rivalry. This one came at the culmination of the great 2013 offensive explosion for Denver. It came with a Patriots team resorted to using Matthew Slater and Austin Collie as cogs in the offense. It wasn't really that close of a game, with the Broncos rolling to a 23-3 lead through three quarters.

That all said, I will always remember it for Manning's performance. In the next iteration of 'the biggest game of his career', Manning was perfectly flawless. 30-41, 400 yards, 2 TDs, nothing even resembling a throw that could have been interception. Manning was not sacked, hit just once. It was a 70-degree day in January in Denver, and Manning shredded the Patriots in a way all Manning supporters always dreamed he would in a playoff game. In '06, he had to overcome a 21-3 deficit against a great defense. In '15, he had to not screw up. In this one? It was all about Manning.

The Broncos offense punted on their first drive. They wouldn't punt again. Their drive chart is pure brilliance, as they went FG-TD-FG-TD-FG-FG over the course of the game - running out the last 3:27 on the last drive. They gained 73, 93, 63, 80 and 60 yards on five straight drives. For the game, they averaged 60 yards per drive. It was a masterful performance against Belichick's defense, setting numerous records for worst defensive performance in the Belichick era (most yards, most passing yards).  Manning was in full control, never better shown than two conversions. First, on their initial TD drive, Manning audibled to a run against a soft box on 3rd and 10, which Moreno took for 28 yards. Then, on their FG drive right before half, after a holding penalty backed them up to 2nd and 20 from the 10 yard line, Manning hit Thomas on a perfect post for 26 yards. There was no real stopping Peyton.

I've never seen a game where Peyton seemed more calm, more at peace, more in command. Nothing really fazed him at all in this game, as he just simply carved up an overmatched. When Manning was still playing, not yet having won his second ring, my memory of this game got clouded by the disaster that was Super Bowl XLVIII, but now I can look back and smile at a QB who had, for a day, basically solved football; a zen-like performance from a player who so rarely did anything with such ease.

7.) 2012 Week 1 - Steelers 19 @ Broncos 31

(There are a few of these games from past years that I actually wrote about at the time. This is the first one. Instead of re-writing my feelings, I'm going to give a quick update of my thoughts standing here, post-Manning-retirement, and then re-post what I wrote about the game from then)

2016, Update: This game will always represent the prologue to the 2nd Book in the Manning Series. Before this game, we still didn't really know if Manning would be back. He looked OK in the preseason. The team hadn't really coalesced around him to becoming the type of team that would carry a limited Peyton to the Super Bowl. Looking back at the game, Peyton was brilliant. He matched wits with Polamalu, he took on the Steelers blitz. He took a few shots, and threw a few bullets. Most notable about the game, he didn't wear a glove on his throwing hand. He actually looked healthy. I forgot about this Peyton, truly. It was an incredible start to a brilliant, complicated and fruitful four years in Denver:


I was stranded at a post-wedding bar when the report came that Peyton Manning was set to undergo a (what was thought to be) third neck surgery before Week 1 of the 2011 season. At that moment, all I knew was that his 208 game start streak was all but done. Little did I know that his Colts career was over. Little did I know how close it came to his overall career being over.

I was stranded with a broken-down van in the middle of nowhere, New Jersey, when Peyton Manning took the field again in a ugly orange uniform. Not knowing the score, or the events that were taking place 2,000 miles away, little did I know that Manning was doing what I had see him do for 208 straight games. One year and four days later I was again stranded, but instead of my sports world falling off a cliff the last time into a jungle of neck fusions and noodle arms, my sports world, my life as a Manning fan, would come back from the wilderness, much like my position with the van.

For one night at least, Peyton Manning, the sports legend, was alive again. He could go out next Monday Night and hurt his back again (although chances of this are far, far less than most would think; it is more likely his arm gets tired, but even that is a low percentage), but that doesn't matter. For one night, he came back from the wilderness and delivered against the NFL's best defense from 2011.

Sure, the Steelers were missing Ryan Clark and James Harrison, but that is still a defense that presents about as tough a challenge as any for Manning's first game back, but other than some early jitters, he passed every test. When Manning started that no-huddle, it was like he was a Colt again. He directed that offense. He called out each Steelers blitz. He was barely touched (some of that is credit to that o-line, which again to repeat, is better than any line he's had since 2007). He came to the line with 20 seconds left, and not once but twice was able to cheat out the blitz for the Steelers. His cat-and-mouse with Polamalu was a fun reminder of the mental ability of Peyton Manning. The game itself was a fun reminder of the true ability of Peyton Manning.

What actually connected with me about that game was the similarities between it and so many Colts games that I watched with nervous eyes from 2004-2010. The Steelers dominated time of possession, holding the ball for all but two plays of the 3rd quarter, pinning the Colts to 14 minutes possession in the first three quarters. Roethslisberger completed umpteen third-and-longs, which is a credit to Ben. It was like watching some QB go off against the Tampa-2 Colts. The game was decided by one crucial interception, a pass rush that became dominant late in the game (three sacks in four plays to ice it) and Manning being Manning. That recipe cemented Bill Polian and Tony Dungy's HOF case.

I have never cried during a sporting event (don't worry, I will the next time the Astros finish over .500). But I've felt something inside me while watching sports numerous times. I had about four or five of them last night. As someone who will be an unabashed Peyton Manning fan until he retires (if Irsay is right and Luck will have a 16 year career, that gives me 10-11 years of pure Luck love), that night made everything that happened over the past year worth it. Seeing Manning morose on the sideline last year. Seeing him breakdown in a way we have never seen in March when he was cut. Seeing that jarring image of him holding up that Orange #18 uniform. Seeing him wobble passes early in the preseason. All of that mess made last night more special. I earned it. All of us Manning and Colts fans earned it. Most importantly, Peyton Manning earned it.

There is a great story in the New York Times last week about Manning's road to recovery. Before he had that surgery that essentially ended his career as a Colt, he was throwing absolute ducks to friend-and-former-Tennessee-QB Todd Helton last summer. He was absolutely unsure if his career will continue. The Colts certainly were as well. Manning works harder than any player in the NFL, and no moreso than his two recoveries from injury. The first time, 2008 when he had a burst bursa sac, he started slow and won the MVP. This year? Who knows.

Peyton Manning nearly choked up last night after the game during his interview with Michelle Tafoya when talking about all the people that helped him during the past 18 months. Manning, sometime around the point where he became the NFL's most marketable star, became a guarded figure. He was still cordial and humorous in his interviews, but rarely showed emotions off the field. That seems to have changed through this whole ordeal, from his teary performance in his Colts send-off press conference to that interview last night. Manning is back, in more ways than one.

I'm probably a little too optimistic on the Broncos chances this year, but even if they go 10-6 and lose in the Divisional Round, I still have the memory of this game. Just remember, the only time I truly cared about the outcome of a game last year, outside of the Make-Sure-New-England-Loses machinations I go through each year, was Dan Orlovsky's gritty two-minute drill to beat a TJ Yates-led Texans team in Week 16. I enjoyed it at the time. I finally understood what it was like to win a game that mattered nothing in my time rooting for the Colts. But looking back, that was just sad. I've been pulled out of that wilderness as well. Manning rescued himself, but he rescued me, and rescued the career of the Greatest QB of All Time.

6.) 2006 Week 8 - Colts 27 @ Patriots 20

Manning won his first game against Tom Brady in 2005, a 40-21 thrashing in Gillette Stadium. It was less meaningful than it should have been since Manning's team was so clearly better in 2005. The Colts were rightful favorites, winning on their way to a 13-0 start. The loss put New England at 4-4. This game was different. The Patriots were 6-1, the Colts were 7-0. The Patriots had a great defense. The Colts a great offense (and historically bad run defense). The site again was in Foxboro on a chilly night, this being the first time the two would meet on NBC Sunday Night Football. Everything was set up for a great game, and that is exactly what we got.

Peyton Manning was in the midst of his quietly brilliant 2006 season, and while the result - a second straight win over New England, both in Foxboro - was loud, this performance was maybe his most sublime. The Patriots defense played great. The pass rush repeatedly got through to Manning, sacking him three times and hitting him countless others. But Manning countered by doing the one thing no one really thought he would ever be able to do: throw on the run. Three or four times, Manning rolled out and launched perfect bombs. The first was the best; on the Colts first drive, facing 3rd and 15 deep in Patriots territory, Manning rolled left, steadied himself, and launched a 44-yard bomb right before getting slammed by Roosevelt Colvin. Marvin Harrison was on the other end of that bomb, the start of an absolutely magical night for him. The other crazy throw on the run by Manning was in the 3rd quarter on 3rd and 5, clinging to a 17-14 lead, Manning rolled left and now completely on the run threw a perfect touch pass to Dallas Clark for 35 yards. Three plays later, the Colts would cement this game in the memory of all Colts fans.

It was 3rd and Goal on the 4-yard line, Colts up 17-14, Manning audibled and fired a quick out throw to Marvin Harrison. It was overthrown, but Harrison threw his hand out, batted it to himself, caught it and while falling out tapped both feet. John Madden assured everyone and himself that there is no way he got both feet down. Marvin Harrison was so confident that right after the catch, he got up and spiked the ball hard on the ground, it ricocheting back up right into Mike Vrabel's face. Of course, it was a good catch. Nothing was going to go wrong for him and Manning in that game.

The rest of the Colts contributed to the performance too. The defense picked off Tom Brady four times, twice in the end zone (Bethea, Bob Sanders - making a rare regular season cameo in 2006), and once to ice the game (Cato June - who had the 4th pick). The Special Teams also helped keep the game close, with Adam Vinatieri, ironically, missing two field goals including one late that would have put the Colts up 30-20. Instead, we got Brady having a chance for a miracle drive to tie the game, and as he would on game-tying tries in both the 2006 and 2015 AFC Championship Game, he got picked off to end it.

The 2006 Colts won the game to go to 8-0 - the second straight year they started that way. The '05 Colts were a juggernaut. The '06 Colts were not. They scraped by behind a brilliant offense and super-efficient Manning compensating for a sieve of a rush defense, and no early season win was bigger than this won. It ended up being the difference in where the AFC Championship Game was played, it ended up giving the Colts another set of good memories to turn to when they started out the Title Game down 21-3. It was one of the stranger games in the rivalry, but a truly memorable regular season one.

My 18 Favorite Peyton Manning Games, Pt. 2: #12 - #9

12.) 2004 Week 3 - Packers 31 @ Colts 45

It is hard to remember now, but the 2004 Colts didn’t start out on the path of the best passing offense (to date) ever. He had a good start to the season, with 4 TDs, 1 INT and a 104.9 rating through two games. The team had scored 55 points. In the third game – their first at home – against Brett Favre and the Packers, the Colts first showed just how amazing they would be. The Colts started the game with the following four drives: TD, TD, TD, TD. All those drives ended with TD passes by Manning, all from outside the red zone. First to Wayne from 36 yards, then to Marvin from 28 yards, then to Stokley for 34 yards, and then Stokley again for 27 yards. Following their lone first half punt, Manning threw another TD, this time to James Mungro from 1-yard. In the first half, the Colts racked up 351 yards. Manning himself went 23-31 for 320 yards and 5 TDs.

It was magic. It also was the first time Manning absolutely destroyed the blitz. No one really ever would blitz him without regard again in his Colts career. The best part about the game was for three drives, the Packers kept up. Favre was basically as good in the first half, but nothing really ever compared to Manning’s 2004 season. He would actually have a pretty average next game against Jacksonville, then rang up a 9-game stretch with 35 TDs, 7 INTs, a 9.9 y/a, and a 130.1 rating. The 2004 Colts regular season was the greatest passing offense relative to its league ever – and it started in reality in this Week 3 showdown between Manning and Favre. Favre played his part with two long TDs to Javon Walker to start the game, but Manning’s assault on the Packers truly was a sight to behold.

11.) 2015 AFC Championship - Patriots 18 @ Broncos 20

For all the people that say that the Broncos won the Super Bowl in-spite of Manning, I submit this game. If you reverse the two QBs, and one guy goes 17-32 with two TDs and no INTs, and the other throws two picks and throws a third on a 2-point conversion that would have sent the game to OT, I guarantee you Manning gets slammed for that performance and Brady gets hailed for being ‘mistake free’. Well, Manning was mistake free – rarely even throwing interceptable passes. Manning’s first drive, going 4-6 for 60 yards and a 21-yard TD to Daniels, was the last great drive he would lead in his career, and it was perfect. Two throws with great anticipation, one bullet throw on the move, and one last perfect seam throw to a TE. Even his 2nd TD showed Manning’s incredible touch ability that he kept late into his career.

However, let’s get real. This game was about the Broncos defense, and that is the real reason the game was memorable to me. Sure, it was fun to see any team do that to Tom Brady, hit him 23 times, sack him 4, make him basically ground the ball 10 more. But really it was more fun having Manning’s team do that to anyone. For so many years, his defenses never had a year like this. For his entire career, the two times he had a defense nearly this good (2005, 2007), first his team imploded after Tony Dungy’s son committed suicide in ’05, and then Freeney got hurt for the year in ’07. For once, everyone was healthy, and Manning got to enjoy his defense dominating the other team. He got to enjoy the defense carrying him, making 20 points hold up. For once, he put his defense on the field, and unlike his team’s playoff losses in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012, his team held onto a 4th quarter lead. It was the most bizarre experience for a Manning fan to watch his team basically reverse everything we knew about Peyton Manning team’s in the playoffs – and I’m sure it was just as fun for Manning. Two years earlier, he had the highest scoring offense ever, and a defense dominated them. Two years later, after Elway said he would build a stronger, tougher team, his defense was doing the dominating.

10.) 2009 Week 2 - Colts 27 @ Dolphins 23

Over Peyton Manning’s career, he won games in ways no one else had. He was the master of the big comeback. If you ask people who they would want down 4 in the 4th quarter, most would probably say Brady. I won’t argue that as a reasonable answer. If you ask them who do you want down 14? The answer is Manning and it isn’t close. This wasn’t one of those comeback games, but maybe the most absurd game he won in his career. The Colts won the game with 14:53 time of possession – that is the lowest total ever for a team that didn’t have a defensive or special teams TD. The Dolphins ran 84 plays, they ran for 239 yards (this was basically at the tail end of their Wildcat being effective). They only turned the ball over once – and that was the last play of the game on a desperation throw. Manning and the Colts offense needed to be perfect. It was. Manning went 14-23, but for 302 yards and 2 TDs. He hit Dallas Clark on a perfectly throw deep seam pass for an 80-yard TD on the first play. The Colts took the lead for good on a perfectly timed Manning audible to a WR-screen to Pierre Garcon – at this point basically an unknown player – for a 48 yard TD.

The drive stats for this game are absurd. The Colts scoring drives took 0:12, 4:07 (their longest drive of the game), 0:43 (a 5-play field goal drive to close out the half), 3:17 and 0:32 (a 4-play 80 yard drive that ended with the Garcon TD). It was as efficient as you can get, which was needed when the Dolphins had drives that went 8:45, 7:24, 6:22, 6:16 and 6:06. Peyton Manning had some ridiculous throws in this game. With 8-seconds left in the 2nd quarter at midfield, he hit Clark for 20 yards – the play ended with 2-seconds left. On the final drive, he had back-to-back 15-yarders to Wayne and Clark that took a total of 10 seconds. This was Manning conducting a quick-hitting sniper attack. However, other than the 15 minutes time-of-possession, the real reason why this game is memorable is this is the game where Jon Gruden coined Peyton Manning as ‘The Sheriff’.

9.) 2006 Week 8 - Colts 34 @ Broncos 31

Manning’s 2006 season ended with his first Super Bowl, so it will always be memorable for that reason. However, that season also represented maybe Manning at his most efficient best. I have long been a proponent of Football Outsiders’ statistics to measure performance at a more advanced level. Their flag-ship stat, DVOA, measures all plays against a baseline success level for a play given the down and distance, and adjusts the success level for opponent and game score. By that stat, the best single-season for a QB was Manning’s 2004 season, at 58.9% better than average. The #3 season: Manning’s 2006 season, at 51.3% above average (Brady’s ’07 is in between). Manning’s ’06 season, when the Colts had a historically bad run defense, was a thing of beauty. By this point, the league had basically adjusted to his ’04-’05 exploits, and played the Colts differently. It didn’t matter, and this game was one of those masterpieces.

The Broncos entered the game 5-1 (the Colts were 6-0), giving up just two TDs in 6 games. The Colts scored three in the 2nd half. Peyton was absolutely brilliant against a great defense, going 32-39 for 345 yards, 3 TDs and no INTs. Champ Bailey erased Marvin Harrison (5-38), so Peyton Manning locked onto Reggie Wayne, just obliterating the Broncos coverage. He and Wayne connected for three TDs, including one just absolutely perfect rainbow for a 19-yarder, and connected on the two point conversion. The Colts had absolutely no margin of error, as the Broncos moved the ball with ease, running for 227 yards, and the Colts basically did not get stopped after a first-drive punt all game. In the second half, Manning was 18-22 for 213 yards and all 3 TDs, again doing this on the road against a defense that had given up just two TDs all year. It was a masterful performance by Manning, another in a long line of him dominating the Broncos all the way up to the point he became one. It was also one of the signature regular season performances during a magical 2006 season for him and the team.

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.