Peyton Manning still had time left on the clock. That's all the quarterback's former head coach, Tony Dungy, needed to know.
While others said Manning had played his last game or that the Broncos would be better off turning the team over to Brock Osweiler, Dungy smiled. Four neck surgeries have robbed "The Sheriff" of velocity on his passes, but Manning beats you with his head as much as his arm.
"Obviously, they're trying to win a Super Bowl this year. The last (regular-season) game of the year, when they put him in and decided to ride with him in the playoffs, I was kind of chuckling when people said this is Brock Osweiller's team and all that," former Bucs and Colts coach Dungy said Monday. "There's very few young quarterbacks you play and think, 'This is how we're going to win a championship.' It doesn't happen very often. There is something to say about experience in the playoffs.
"If Peyton was healthy, I thought he could do it. I didn't know how healthy he was, but I saw him throw some balls in that Pittsburgh game (in the AFC division round) and thought he was on the right track. I was surprised when everybody on Sunday wrote him off and when (CBS analyst) Boomer Esiason said he was playing his last game. You're talking about Denver having the No. 1 defense in football and the No. 1 seed playing at home and people don't realize how tough it is to win playoff games on the road. I thought it would be low scoring and there would be a couple of plays they'd have to make in the passing game, and they did."
Manning, 39, is in the Super Bowl for the fourth time after passing for two touchdowns for Denver in Sunday's 20-18 win over New England in the AFC Championship Game.
It has been a strange season for Manning, who passed for nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions and struggled getting comfortable in Gary Kubiak's offense, then missed six games recovering from a torn plantar fascia in his left foot.
"I saw him earlier in the season and it looked to me as if it was just a matter of timing with his receivers," Dungy said. "I thought he was getting healthier. But when I saw the Kansas City game, I saw a lot of bad things and I felt like he had to be hurt."
Dungy went to the postseason all seven seasons he coached Manning in Indianapolis, including two AFC title games. They won Super Bowl XLI against the Bears in the 2006 season. But even during that playoff run, they won a defensive struggle 16 over Baltimore in the division round in which they needed five Adam Vinatieri field goals.
"What people miss about Peyton is his competitiveness and the toughness and desire to win," Dungy said. "Every game is different. We won some games like the ones this past Sunday, low scoring. On our Super Bowl run, it was not always pretty and you figured out a way to make a play. It's finding a way to win."
Manning gets criticized for his playoff record (13-13) and having only the one Super Bowl ring. But he is 4-1 in AFC title games and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, a four-time champion, has never beaten Manning on the road in the postseason. Dungy believes his former QB has been treated unfairly for his lack of Lombardi Trophies.
"It's so hard to win a Super Bowl, and people don't realize that," Dungy said. "If New England doesn't have 12 guys on the field in '06, we might not have won one. If (Bucs receiver) Bert Emanuel's catch isn't a catch for the first time before or afterward (in the 1999 NFC title game), the only time in history it wasn't a catch, maybe we win one here in Tampa. That's how it goes."
Denver is a 41/2-point underdog against Carolina, and Dungy believes it will be a tougher challenge to win Super Bowl 50. "They're going to be a much tougher test against the Denver defense," he said. "But Denver is going to be in it, and I think Peyton will find a way to move the ball a little bit."
Win or lose, the speculation is that Manning will finally retire. Dungy is not sure. He has seen him at his best when it looked like time wasn't on his side.
"When we won the Super Bowl in 2006, that was going to be it for me," Dungy said. "I was going to walk into Jim (Irsay's) office and retire. But on the plane ride home, everybody is talking about, 'Can we do it again and what do we think?' You almost feel a sense of obligation to try and defend it. It will be interesting to see how it goes, if he goes out and plays well, it would be the perfect storm to ride out on that Super Bowl victory. It wouldn't surprise me, but this may not be his last one. I know he still enjoys preparing and competing, and they've got a good football team and will be good next year."