Peyton’s Place

Denver's Super Bowl--bound quarterback is riding a mile high

Denver has a special place in its heart for old quarterbacks. In the earliest days of the Broncos franchise, the star of the team was a former Notre Dame golden boy, Frank Tripucka, who had been humbled by the NFL and reduced to the wilds of Canadian football before fetching up in the Mile High City. His unlikely 1960 season, in which he joined legends Johnny Unitas and Jack Kemp as the first pros to throw for 3,000 yards in one year, was all Denver had to brag about for many years.

Then, after what seemed like an eon of losing seasons, a journeyman named Craig Morton limped into town to lead the Broncos to their first Super Bowl at the end of a miraculous 1977 season. The great John Elway took the team to five additional title games over his long career with the Broncos–but he did not win the big jeweled ring until he was 37 years old. Elway added another ring the following year.

Which brings us to canny old Peyton Manning, the latest rifleman to find that Denver is a mighty fine place to ride into the sunset. Two years after multiple neck surgeries ended his run in Indianapolis–there were doubts that the future Hall of Famer would ever play again–Manning at 37 has rewritten the NFL record books this year while guiding the Broncos to Super Bowl XLVIII. (That’s 48 to folks born after the fall of Rome.)

In the process, Manning has enraptured the rapidly growing ranks of the formerly young in places far beyond the valley of the South Platte River. With his thinning hair and sloping shoulders, he is disproving F. Scott Fitzgerald’s claim that America spurns second acts. Indeed, wherever the guile and lore of age fights its valiant, doomed battle against encroaching youth, the Manning banner flies rampantly.

Other, younger quarterbacks boast tighter abs and tighter spirals; they scramble, dodge and pirouette their way onto the highlight reels. Manning–whose one rushing touchdown this year made him look like a man with a bum hip chasing a taxi in wingtips–blew past them. He opened the season with a record-tying seven touchdown passes in game one against the defending Super Bowl champs from Baltimore. He never looked back.

His secret? A platoon of adhesive receivers certainly helped. Denver is the first team in NFL history to claim four players with 10 or more touchdown catches in the same season. Manning’s offensive line, meanwhile, has borne a striking resemblance to the Great Wall of China. Despite his immobility, the old man was sacked only 18 times–once per 36.6 passes, by far the best in the league.

But as he coolly dismantled opposing defenses for 55 regular-season touchdown passes and 5,477 passing yards–bettering the previous records–what stood out most was Manning’s mental mastery. Whatever toll the years have taken from the neck down was more than paid in earnings from the neck up. It’s a cost-benefit analysis that made particular sense to Denver’s executive vice president of football operations, John Elway.

The AFC championship game on Jan. 19 told this brain-beats-brawn story with a clarity matched only by the high-country sunshine. Manning’s Broncos faced off against the New England Patriots, who have their own aging superstar in quarterback Tom Brady. Manning and Brady, Brady and Manning–together they are the best of their era. In compiling this brilliant season, Manning chased Brady’s magnificent 2007, and in the end, the question of which was the greater masterpiece will keep the rabbis of the record books cheerfully occupied with years of Talmudic argument.

So to find them on opposite sides of the field with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line was a script from the pens of the gridiron gods. The casual blather of sports-talk radio held that Manning is a bit of a postseason choke artist. His 11 playoff losses as a quarterback is a record he isn’t happy to share. Last year’s first-round gag against Baltimore left Denver fans heartbroken. And here was Brady, with the movie-star chin and supermodel wife and–count ’em–three Super Bowl rings, ready to tear the last page from Manning’s late-life comeback story.

Nope. Manning turned the grass of Denver’s Sports Authority Field into a classroom where he delivered a clinic in state-of-the-art offense. Skipping huddles to hurry things along, he analyzed Patriots defenses at a glimpse and translated the data into plays he called in a laconic drawl that somehow pierced the roar of his adoring fans. Nibbling and pecking with a bewildering mix of passes, Manning confounded the seventh best defense in the league. On one key drive, Manning called a run in an obvious passing situation and watched New England melt away to yield the necessary first down. Later, the opposite: a pass call on what should have been a running play, moving the chains again.

Manning’s final stats for the game were nothing eye-popping by this season’s outsize standards: 26 points, two touchdown passes, 400 yards in the air. But the number that told the story of Denver’s 10-point victory was very much the product of Manning’s crafty play calling. Thanks to all those first downs, his Broncos had the ball for more than 35 minutes, compared with a mere 24 minutes for Brady and the Patriots. It’s hard for a quarterback to win if he’s not on the field.

Afterward, Manning credited his adopted home and some old-fashioned values for his success. “The folks in Denver, the city and the organization sure have made me feel welcome,” he said. “I’ve put a lot of hard work in, and a lot of people–teammates, coaches and trainers–have helped me along the way.”

The Feb. 2 Super Bowl in East Rutherford, N.J., will find the tribal elder facing off against one of the most promising young quarterbacks in the league, Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks. As a rookie last year, Wilson tied the NFL record for touchdown passes by a freshman quarterback (26, set a million years ago by a kid named Peyton Manning). Wilson is on the small side, but he’s a strong passer and an electrifying runner. Like Manning, he seems to have a level head and a generous heart in a world where neither is sufficiently celebrated.

Indeed, he is exactly the sort of player a sentimental old magazine writer might be inclined to root for, if that writer were not from Denver, where the bugling of an old quarterback in full charge against time again rings down the mountainsides.

This appears in the February 03, 2014 issue of TIME.
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