The End of the Line for Peyton Manning?

peyton manning denver broncos

Peyton Manning’s underwhelming playoff legacy has been largely defined by the phrase "one-and-done." He has endured a mind-boggling nine first-game eliminations in his postseason career, in 14 playoff trips. That’s an NFL record no one would ever care to hold, certainly not a Hall of Fame-bound quarterback who will go down as one of the best to ever play the game.

But in the wake of his latest early exit from the postseason — the Broncos’ stunning 24-13 loss to the No. 4-seeded Indianapolis Colts — one-and-done could take on a whole new level of meaning for No. 18.

After the dismal way this season ended for him and the Broncos, it’s no longer unthinkable to ask: Is Manning done? After three years in Denver, has he already turned in the best work he’ll ever produce for the Broncos, and is his level of play finally starting to show irreversible signs of slippage?

On Sunday at a shell-shocked Sports Authority Field, it very much looked that way, didn’t it? Manning, who turns 39 in March, looked every bit of his age, and suddenly there are so many questions and so few answers in Denver. Physically Manning doesn’t seem right, and who can really say if it’s just the toll of another long season, or the cumulative effect of a career in decline, reaching its inevitable conclusion?

After this bitter disappointment, will Manning even still care to return for the 2015 season in Denver? Will the Broncos ask him back for a fourth year, at a $19 million salary, having already paid him $58 million for three superb seasons, with his 38-10 regular-season record thrown into sharp contrast by his 2-3 record in the playoffs? Could this be the time to start re-tooling for the Broncos, with the potential of offensive coordinator Adam Gase leaving for a head coaching opportunity and key free agents like Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Terrance Knighton to re-sign? And who for certain knows the exact fate of Denver head coach John Fox in light of this weekend’s developments. Change could be a rather large theme for the Broncos this offseason and into next year.

It suddenly feels like it might be over for Manning in Denver, with the team's Super Bowl window of opportunity closing and their championship quest still unfilled. After all the hope and anticipation of a late-career second ring for Manning, pulling his own version of John Elway’s act in Denver, all that was accomplished were two divisional-round dismissals at home to lower seeds in 2012 (Baltimore) and '14 (the Colts), and last year’s Super Bowl run, which ended so disastrously in that 35-point blowout loss to Seattle in the Meadowlands.

Sunday represented perhaps the final indignity, with Denver being fairly well handled by the very Colts team that Manning once led and all but owned. And it had to sting a little extra that he was outplayed by Andrew Luck, the third-year quarterback who made him expendable in Indianapolis, the city he thought would be his only NFL home. With the juxtaposition of his arch-rival, Tom Brady, and the Patriots going to their ninth AFC Championship Game next week, Manning must now cope with a ninth galling one-and-done playoff run (no other quarterback has more than four in the Super Bowl era).

Tonight, even the chicken parm won’t taste so good in the Manning household, because he was that off his game against the Colts. He overthrew a slew of passes (as many as eight according to ESPN’s account), averaged just 4.6 yards per attempt (26-of-46 for 211 yards), and was just 6-of-21 (29 percent) on throws longer than five yards. He had one touchdown, and lost a fumble, and struggled repeatedly on third downs, completing just 5-of-14 passes in that key situation.

Manning's embarrassing playoff record can in no way be sugar-coated. Yes, he earned a Super Bowl ring with the Colts in 2006. But he’s now 11-13 in the postseason, the most defeats by any quarterback in NFL history, and he’s lost five of the past seven playoff games he’s appeared in, being knocked out of the tournament in one game in '10, '12 and '14, as well as his '09 upset Super Bowl loss to the Saints. Manning has managed to lose three of his most recent five playoff games played at home, and both of his latest Super Bowls. Though his teams were favored in 11 of the 13 playoff games he’s lost — including Sunday’s — Manning’s propensity to play his worst when the stakes are the highest is a huge and significant chapter in his record-breaking career.

And all those negatives just got reinforced and underlined one more time. Will it be the last time we see Manning play in the postseason, or anywhere for that matter? All those questions will take time to be answered. But for now, where Manning and the Broncos go from here is anyone’s guess. If Sunday was it, and Manning is finished, it’s somehow appropriate that the end came with another of his trademark early playoff exits.

Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

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