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Friday, January 10, 2014
It all falls on Peyton Manning

By Adam Schefter
ESPN.com

Fair or not, Denver's divisional playoff game Sunday versus San Diego, as well as any subsequent postseason matchup, will go straight on the ledger and legacy of Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.

Those looking for the flaws in Manning's football career go straight to the 9-11 postseason record he has put up after regular seasons of routine greatness.

But that 9-11 won-loss record just as easily could be flipped, improved and made so that critics would need to find some other way to question Manning's credentials.

Of Manning's 11 postseason losses, seven came in games that Manning could easily have won if one other player had made one other play. But certain Broncos and Colts could not come through, and the loss followed Manning, which is how football works.

Peyton Manning
Peyton Manning probably deserved to win at least a handful of the playoff games that eluded his teams' grasp over the years.

No other player in sports is as important as the quarterback, which is one reason QBs are treated like and paid better than royalty. But they get most of the blame, too, even though a game's outcome is never on one player.

There are plenty of other culprits in Manning's subpar postseason mark.

Last season, had Broncos safety Rahim Moore not made what might have been the single worst defensive play in postseason history, Denver would have beaten Baltimore. But Moore misjudged a 70-yard, Joe Flacco-to-Jacoby Jones touchdown pass with 41 seconds remaining that sent the divisional playoff game into overtime, where the Ravens eventually won 38-35. Yet Manning absorbed more blame than anyone.

During the 2010 divisional playoffs, after Manning led the Colts on an eight-play, 48-yard drive for a go-ahead field goal with 53 seconds remaining, Indianapolis' defense could not hold against the Jets. It allowed New York quarterback Mark Sanchez to drive his team 40 yards for a winning field goal at the gun for a 17-16 Jets win. Some wondered what Manning was missing.

During Super Bowl XLIV, with Indianapolis leading 10-6 at halftime, the Saints attempted and recovered an onside kick to start the second half, leading the way for them to rally and win 31-17. Manning threw a decisive late-game interception to Tracy Porter and caught plenty of flak himself.

During a 2008 wild-card game in San Diego, with 2:30 remaining and the Chargers out of timeouts, all Indianapolis needed was one more first down to run out the clock. Yet on a third-and-2, Manning was sacked. The Chargers tied the score on their next possession with a field goal and won 23-17 after they won the overtime coin toss and scored a touchdown before the Colts ever could touch the ball. Yet Manning was blamed.

During a 2007 divisional playoff game against the Chargers, with Indianapolis trailing 28-24, Colts tight end Dallas Clark dropped a fourth-down pass just shy of midfield with one minute left that would have given his team a first down and a chance to win. Criticism was showered on Manning.

During a 2005 divisional playoff against the Steelers, with Pittsburgh clinging to a 21-18 lead, Colts cornerback Nick Harper scooped up a Jerome Bettis fumble with 21 seconds remaining and looked headed for the highly improbable score. But the night before, Harper was rushed to the hospital after his wife stabbed him in the knee in a domestic dispute, and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger improbably was able to bring down Harper in the open field with one hand. Harper could have and should have scored a winning touchdown. But if that weren't bad enough, then Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt missed a potential tying 46-yard field goal attempt. Indianapolis -- and Manning -- lost.

During the 2000 wild-card round against Miami, after Indianapolis' defense allowed quarterback Jay Fiedler to drive the Dolphins 80 yards and throw a 9-yard touchdown pass to Jed Weaver with one minute remaining, Vanderjagt missed what would have been a winning 49-yard field goal attempt in overtime. The Dolphins went on to win 23-17.

So when people are discussing Manning's 9-11 postseason record, they need to consider the full body of work, not just the final result. A few of these games, maybe more, easily could have gone the other way. For argument's sake, let's just say two had. Then, with a winning postseason record, the narrative about him is entirely different.

It's one play here, one play there, one other player doing his part to send his team on. Manning was the quarterback, the engineer, the most important player who failed to help lead his team to victory 11 times in the postseason. But there were times, clear ones, when he played well enough for his team to win. It hasn't always been him, despite the narrative.

Yet we continue to constantly use broad brushstrokes to paint a picture that is completely misleading and thoroughly incomplete. Starting Sunday against San Diego and continuing for as long as this postseason lasts, Denver wins and loses as a team. But a win or loss will not be hung on anyone as much as it will be hung on Manning.

One play from someone other than the quarterback can change everything -- games, legacies and all the conversation that follows.

Turn the lights back on? Candlestick Park supposedly was closed down in Week 16. San Francisco said its goodbyes then. But it's not out of the question that the 49ers could be saying hello to it again.

If the Saints upset the Seahawks in Seattle on Saturday and the 49ers beat the Panthers in Carolina on Sunday, then the NFC Championship Game would be right back at Candlestick, a few weeks after San Francisco thought it was closing it down with a dramatic Monday night victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

It's the reason the 49ers warned their fans before the game against the Falcons to leave the stadium as intact as possible, to not pull out chairs, to leave it alone. San Francisco knew Candlestick needed to be preserved in the unlikely event of a return that now looks just a little more likely.

When the idea of returning to Candlestick Park was brought up to one 49ers official this week, he quickly texted back, "Let's just focus on Carolina, thanks."

Land of impatience: While other teams keep on shaking up their coaching staffs and organizations, the Patriots are shaking their heads. Since the day they hired Bill Belichick as their head coach in 2000, other NFL teams have hired 138 -- 138! -- head coaches.

The Browns are going on their third head coach in four years -- as many as the Steelers have had the past 45 years.

The Redskins are going on their eighth head coach in 14 years.

Someone needs to shake some sense into these NFL owners. In this league, quarterbacks aren't the only key to success. Stability also is.

Franchises that have had it have been rewarded for it. Franchises that haven't, have paid for it -- along with the contracts of their fired coaches.

In a real-time world, in which society craves instant gratification, owners need to understand that firings should not be done as quickly as tweeting.

Many of these owners needed years to build their business empires. Don't the men they hire to lead their football teams deserve the same?

The Schef's specialties

Game of the Week: New Orleans at Seattle -- After Seattle blew out New Orleans in a Monday night game on Dec. 2, Saints coach Sean Payton predicted to his team that it would be in position this postseason to exact revenge. Here's New Orleans' chance.

Player of the Week: Patriots QB Tom Brady -- The 100-year war between New England and Indianapolis continues, but this time the veteran gets to show the youngster how it's done.