EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — For Peyton Manning, insofar as he cares about personal reputation, the Super Bowl represented an almost absurd historical fork. Had he won it, he would have been discussed as perhaps the best NFL quarterback of all time. Instead, this stinker will now be attached to his name in perpetuity, along with the galling fact that he set a new record for Super Bowl completions. For years Manning has dragged around the criticism, like tin cans tied to the back of a high-end car, that he produces more great statistics than great victories, and the noise just got louder.
Now his critics will tie another can on: he’s lost two of the three Super Bowls he’s played in, and this one was arguably his worst defeat in an NFL uniform, a 43-8 loss to the Seattle Seahawks so thorough that it’s safe to say the short-term pain blotted out any sense of history. “It’s not an easy pill to swallow, but we have to,” he said. “I don’t know if you ever really get over it. You have to find a way to deal with it, and process it.”
Eventually, it was such a rout that the focus mercifully shifted from Manning to the Broncos as a whole. They were so uncharacteristically poor in every phase of the game that you could hardly lay the blame on Manning, who managed to compete a record 34 passes though he accounted for two first-half interceptions that led to 14 points for Seattle. The Broncos put the ball on the ground, gave up a total of four turnovers to the NFL’s top-ranked defense, and scattered like quail in allowing a touchdown to Percy Harvin on the second half kickoff. “We needed to play really well to win and we didn’t come anywhere close,” Manning said.
Make no mistake, Manning’s claim as the all-time greatest quarterback didn’t die of natural causes. It was flat out murdered by the brilliant and complete Seattle Seahawks, who showed not a sign of remorse in beating the entire Broncos franchise to a pulp.
But it was also a fact that the Broncos weren’t right from the opening snap — which center Manny Ramirez jacked over Manning’s head. They were so hapless and hesitant it left you wondering: where did the lethally smooth operation of the regular season go? The one in which Manning bustled down the field so commandingly without a huddle, striding long-shanked to new all-time records for yards and touchdowns, with 55 scores to just 10 interceptions?
One answer was that they were just too hyped up. The entire outfit looked alternately frozen and nerve-shattered by the occasion. All of their cool, season-long discipline disappeared in the avalanche of noise at MetLife Stadium, where the pregame music was so loud it made your heart skip beats.
On the first play of the game all Manning did was walk to the line and try to bark a signal. Ramirez, tensed in all of the noise, snapped the ball so hard that it shot past Manning’s face mask and wound up eight yards deep in the end zone, where Knowshon Moreno fell on it to give the Seahawks a safety. It was a land-speed record for points and emotional advantage just 12 seconds into the game. Manning and Ramirez hadn’t messed up an exchange like that all season.
“It was loud,” Ramirez said. “No one heard the snap count. I thought I did, and I snapped it, and I guess Peyton was walking up to me, and I didn’t know it.”
But it was also true that Seahawks’ press gang of a defense simply got into their heads. Manning and the entire Broncos offense simply couldn’t cope with their stag-legged speed, and their violence. The Seahawks came at Manning like a raid, and made his feet do stutter-steps in the pocket. Which is never a good sign. Manning is basically built like a walking stick, slender and stalking in the pocket. Rapid movement under fire has never been his best thing.
Plays were arrested before they ever got started. The Seahawks ran receivers down from behind and slung them to the ground, or banged them around like pinballs. Which made Manning shuffling and uncertain, and led to his two first-half interceptions. The most catastrophic turnover came in the second quarter just as Manning and the Broncos seemed to find some composure and put together a drive to the Seattle 35, but the pocket caved around Manning. Linebacker Cliff Avril caught his arm as he threw to Moreno. The ball fluttered into the air, like a startled bird. The closest Bronco to it was Moreno, but for some reason Moreno stood stock-still under the lights. Seahawks outside linebacker Malcolm Smith charged past him and jumped into the air and grasped it, and then jetted up the field for a 69-yard touchdown return.
And with that, no doubt half the viewers in the country turned to see what Lord Grantham will do about the tenant farmers.
Where will the enshriners rate Manning now? He has lost his sovereignty with them no doubt. They will call this a blot on his record. But was a loss invalidating? Hardly.
“It’s not embarrassing at all,” Manning snapped. “I’d never use that word. There’s a lot of pro football players in that locker room who put a lot of hard work into being here, and the word embarrassing is insulting to tell the truth.”
“If you can find a way to make it fuel you,” he added, “somehow, some way, you try to make a positive from it. But it’s certainly not a quick fix.”