A waning force, but Manning hopes for fairytale farewell in Santa Clara

Although it may be relatively new to Ireland’s sporting vernacular, the notion of ‘paralysis by analysis’ has long since been a staple of the American discourse.

A waning force, but Manning hopes for fairytale farewell in Santa Clara

Media coverage across the Atlantic has always been a trial by numbers, games played out on paper first and turf second.

Given the swathes of statistics at their disposal, the fact that commentators continually find themselves resorting to kindergarten rhetoric can therefore feel like something of a paradox.

Indeed, so often does pre-match analysis revert to comparing the virtues of two opposing quarterbacks that one could be forgiven for presuming American football is an individual sport.

And while the 2016 postseason has brought with it that self-same narrative, on this occasion it seems somewhat justified.

After all, January saw history being made on both sides of the NFL ledger.

Arizona’s visit to Carolina was the first ever play-off game contested by two Heisman-winning quarterbacks, and whereas Carson Palmer was unable produce a performance worthy of the billing, his opposite number had no such difficulties.

Once described by Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh as ‘plutonium-grade raw material’, Cam Newton affirmed his emergence as a bona-fide weapon of mass destruction with a stellar display in the NFC decider.

The Cardinals were but the latest team engulfed by Cam’s rising tide in Carolina, but waters were running a good deal deeper in America’s Midwest.

Indeed, if the Panthers’ victory over Arizona heralded the birth of a new rivalry, the AFC Championship game went some way to capping another.

Denver’s clash with New England marked the final salvo of the famed ‘Brady/Manning Bowl’, the fifth championship game contested between titled protagonists Tom & Peyton.

What ensued was a thriller worthy of Oscars season, even if the featured players found themselves demoted to the supporting cast.

Denver’s defence was instead allotted the lead role, a series of valiant goal-line stands holding Brady scoreless through to the final minute.

For his part, Manning managed to have a rather more decisive say in matters, a pair of red-zone conversions to Owen Daniels ultimately proving enough to steer his side to Levi’s Stadium.

That those two touchdowns trebled his Mile High tally for the campaign, however, lends credence to the suggestion that Peyton is no longer the prolific force of yore. Given that next month will mark his 40th birthday, it would be remiss to expect anything else.

And yet, the seemingly abrupt nature of his decline has nonetheless been a point of contention. After all, just last season the Tennessee alum surpassed Brett Favre as the leading TD passer in league history.

Despite piloting Denver to another AFC West title thereafter, Manning’s form began to seem more reflective of his four neck surgeries than his five MVPs.

And while a tendency to wilt in the play-off heat is an accusation which has long since been levelled at the Louisianan, the root of his latest capitulation appeared less psychological than physiological.

He looked every bit the gun-shy prize-fighter when the Colts stormed Sports Authority Field in 2015’s divisional round, trigger-happy whippersnapper Andrew Luck guiding Indianapolis to a convincing road win.

Manning’s paltry end to the last campaign would ultimately parlay into a similarly inauspicious start to this, the veteran ceding 17 turnovers in nine games and logging a career-low pass completion rate.

Injury would mercifully withdraw him from the firing line in Week 10, a plantar fascia tear affording timely reprieves to player and fans alike.

His absence was predicted to span a month, and yet the form of heir-apparent Brock Osweiler suggested he might be MIA a little longer.

Indeed, despite being restored to the roster for the penultimate game of the regular season, Manning found himself demoted to back-up for the first time since his freshman year.

Denver’s decisive showing against Cincinnati seemed to vindicate that decision, the win leaving Gary Kubiak’s side on the cusp of the AFC’s top seed.

With this in mind, Osweiler was chosen to start the final game, but a pair of costly interceptions in the early going meant his understudy was called upon to finish it.

Though hardly tantamount to rolling back the clock, Manning’s cameo did at least belie the sands of time long enough to stem San Diego’s charge, Denver’s offence seemingly buoyed by his presence as much as his playmaking.

In the dog-eat-dog vacuum of the NFL play-offs, such intangibles will only get you so far. Thankfully, for the Broncos’ faithful at least, their defence has emerged as an altogether more palpable force in that regard. Tom Brady, who was hit a season-high 20 times last time out, likely has a chiropractic invoice to prove it.

As such, if the Broncos are to claim victory in Santa Clara, defence will be the rock upon which they build their church.

That in itself will be quite a departure for a team whose most recent Super Bowl appearance saw them on the wrong end of 43-point shellacking from the Seahawks.

In reality, the unit taking field this evening will bear little resemblance to that which departed MetLife Stadium with tails firmly between legs two years ago.

All-pro recruits in Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware, coupled with returning stalwarts such as Von Miller and Derek Wolfe, have seen the Broncos supplant Seattle as the America’s misers-in-chief.

And while the transition to second fiddle is unlikely to sit overly well with a career-long conductor, Manning is not the only old-hand to pass the baton in that respect.

God-fearing soul though he may be, the 39-year-old need only cast his eyes to the directors’ box for enlightenment on that particular score.

Last Sunday marked 17 years since Broncos’ GM John Elway partook in a successful Super Bowl swansong of his own, the hall-of-famer bringing Vince Lombardi back to Denver for the second time in as many seasons.

And whereas Elway had all but singlehandedly blazed the trail en route to their three failed attempts of the late eighties, Denver's back-to-back successes a decade later came courtesy of a rather more collaborative effort.

Terrell Davis, for one, assumed the reins on the offensive side of the ball, the rambunctious running back becoming the first player ever to score a hat-trick in the season-decider.

Though not quite a showing of highlight-reel proportions, the fact that Elway’s contribution earned him a Super Bowl MVP in his last outing suggests veteran nous is not without its value on the grandest stage.

And while he is no doubt hoping to see that particular trend repeat itself this evening, Carolina’s men in black will be keen to make some history of their own.

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