Peyton Manning: Three games for the rest of your life

Jan 3, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) after the game against the San Diego Chargers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos won 27-20. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 3, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) after the game against the San Diego Chargers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos won 27-20. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports /

Peyton Manning: You have three games for the rest of your life. Your football career. Will the Denver Broncos and their future Hall of Fame quarterback hoist the Lombardi Trophy at season’s end?

One game does not a career make…

…but three might.

Peyton Manning has three games for the rest of his life. For his NFL career. For his football legacy.

What happens in these next three games is a crap-shoot, even though the last two seasons it has been #1 seeds meeting head to head in the Super Bowl. We all know that the underdogs like to make an appearance come playoff time, and we all know that the Broncos, despite being a #1 seed, are underdogs.

Peyton Manning was replaced by Brock Osweiler in a game against the Kansas City Chiefs that seemed like the end of Manning’s football career. Diligence and a bit of bad luck for the Broncos’ offense forced Manning back onto the field in the regular season finale against the San Diego Chargers, and a whirlwind of circumstances gave the Broncos the top seed in the playoffs.

There was really no question who was going to be the team’s quarterback from that point on. Gary Kubiak pulled the plug on Brock Osweiler against the Chargers, but he had also made his decision going forward. Manning is — and has always been — his guy this season.

And that isn’t anything that should be new to us Broncos fans. Kubiak has maintained throughout the season that the Broncos were constantly monitoring Manning’s health, and that if he were ready to play, that he would be the one under center. The interesting thing in all of this is that when Manning was ‘healthy enough’ to go, Osweiler started against San Diego and may have never been pulled if not for the turnovers caused by his teammates on offense.

That might be a story for an ESPN ’30 for 30′ documentary someday.

The reality of the situation now is that Peyton Manning has three games for the rest of his NFL career, and it all starts on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers are a team that Manning will likely always have bad memories of because of a fumble by Jerome Bettis that was nearly returned for a touchdown if not for a game-saving tackle by Ben Roethlisberger. The Colts couldn’t cash in on the turnover and the Steelers wound up winning the AFC Championship and the Super Bowl in the 2005 season.

Should the Broncos move on this Sunday, it’d be stunning if we weren’t talking about a Manning vs. Brady duel, probably for the last time. Countless times, Manning’s arch nemesis in New England has gotten the better of him, and his championship rings speak very loudly in the argument of who is the greatest QB to ever play the game.

And then there’s the Super Bowl, which if Manning is able to help the Broncos win the next two games has been a bit of an enemy in and of itself. Manning has been to the Super Bowl three times, and has lost twice. The most recent loss is probably the most embarrassing in the modern football era.

We won’t talk anymore about that.

The other loss Manning had in the Super Bowl came against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints, where two defining plays were an interception by Manning and an onside kick recovered coming out of halftime by the Saints. Manning’s Colts just couldn’t do enough to beat that year’s “team of destiny” and secure another championship.

Manning’s lone Super Bowl victory ironically came in poor weather conditions in Miami against the Chicago Bears, where Peyton needed some big time plays by the defense to help him get his first — and so far only — ring.

This season, I would be shocked if we weren’t witnessing the last of Peyton Manning. Physically, the grind has got to be more than grueling. Mentally, he’s still there, but it’s got to be getting tougher and tougher to answer the questions about his future, about his physical ability, about his health, and whatever other non-football issues people want to constantly ask him about.

The circus of Manning hasn’t become Favre-like because Peyton would never let it get that way, but if he can win three games in a row here, there would be no doubt about his NFL career. Finished, and on top.

A second championship would add the finishing touches to an outstanding Hall of Fame career that can almost not be topped. When it comes to regular season play, the grind of a 16-game season, there’s no question Manning is probably the best to ever do it. An offensive coordinator on the field with the ability to beat people before the ball is even snapped…we’ve just never seen anything else quite like it.

In the playoffs, Manning has had plenty of struggles. He’s seen enough disappointment. Nothing worse than the last three years in Denver where he’s been beaten by a Hail Mary, an absolute drubbing in the Super Bowl (sorry, I promised I wouldn’t bring it up again…), and an embarrassing loss at home to the team that cut him once upon a time.

The playoffs in Denver for Peyton Manning have been nothing short of miserable, save for a couple of wins in 2013. Can he help the Broncos end the drought? Can he end his own drought?

Can he end his career a champion?

Like I said, I think Manning has three games to define his NFL career, perhaps just one. How will we remember him?

I’m hoping it’s as a winner. A champion…

…in orange and blue.