ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – From rematches to revivals to redemption, it’s not a good idea to bet against Peyton Manning when it comes to second chances.
He has 97 touchdown throws since hooking up with John Elway in Denver two years ago after the Indianapolis Colts released him when neck troubles clouded his football future.
After dispatching San Diego on Sunday on the anniversary of last year’s crushing loss to Baltimore in eerily similar circumstances, Manning stands one win from a shot at becoming the first quarterback to win Super Bowls with two franchises.
Standing in his way are Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, who beat the Broncos 34-31 in overtime in November.
Thing is, it’s been six years since Manning lost a rematch to a team that beat him earlier in the season.
The Broncos (14-3) lost just once at home this season, when they became the highest-scoring team in the Super Bowl era, propelled by Manning’s record 55 TD throws and 5,447 yards through the air.
That was back on Dec. 12, when they were upset by San Diego, a loss they avenged Sunday by beating the Chargers 24-17.
The last time Manning lost twice in a row to the same team was in 2007, when the Colts lost 23-21 at San Diego in November and then dropped a 28-24 heartbreaker at home in the wild-card playoffs.
Since then, Manning has won five straight rematches, including the AFC championship against the Jets 30-17 following the 2009 season, avenging a 29-15 loss in Week 16 that ended Indy’s shot at a perfect season.
It took a vintage performance from Manning on Sunday to keep that streak going.
After controlling the game for 3 1/2 quarters, the Broncos allowed 17 fourth-quarter points after losing shutdown cornerback Chris Harris Jr. to a torn ACL.
The Broncos were facing third-and-17 from their own 20 with three minutes left and Rivers loosening up his right arm on the Chargers sideline, ready for his chance to tie this one just like the Ravens had a year earlier on their way to a 38-35 win in double-overtime.
“It was deja vu,” Elway, now the Broncos’ executive vice president, said on his weekly podcast on the team’s website Tuesday.
As Manning took the snap and stepped up, the pocket began to collapse around him, but he spotted tight end Julius Thomas open along the Broncos sideline. The pass was perfect, as was Thomas’ tap dance until his momentum took him out of bounds at the 41.
Then, on third-and-6 from his 45, Manning hit Thomas for a 9-yard gain over the middle with 2:12 left.
A year ago, then-offensive coordinator Mike McCoy called for a run by undersized Ronnie Hillman on third-and-7 at about the same point in the game, which in turn led to Joe Flacco’s 70-yard touchdown heave to Jacoby Jones over Rahim Moore with 31 seconds left.
This was the ultimate second chance, and Manning made good on it.
“Julius and I have spent a lot of time working on those particular routes, after practice, in practice,” Manning said. “And that’s one of the most rewarding parts of football, when you put that work in, off to the side and after practice, and it pays off for you in a game … those two plays were certainly worth the hard work.”
Thomas had just one career catch coming into this season, his third in the NFL, and he had gotten hurt on that one reception, no less. He even briefly considered giving up his dream of playing football.
But this season, he broke Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe’s team record for tight ends by catching 12 TD passes and it was his emergence that freed up Manning’s other targets – Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker, along with running back Knowshon Moreno – who all joined him with 10 or more touchdowns.
Thomas, who didn’t play in the first matchup against the Patriots because of a knee injury, finished with six catches for 76 yards Sunday, but none was longer – or bigger – than his 21-yarder.
“Third-and-17 was the play of the game,” Elway said. “We had to pick it up, keep the chains moving, keep them off the field and not give them a chance and so that’s where it was tremendous. The offensive line did a great job of protecting Peyton, Julius Thomas made a great catch dragging his feet on the sideline.
“But who knows where the game goes if we don’t make that play? Those are the types of plays you have to make in playoff football to be able to advance.”
And make the most of second chances.