Extra Points: Peyton perseveres in legacy game

( - Anyone want to take shots at Peyton Manning now?

NFL quarterbacks don't play the game in a vacuum but that's never stopped some critics from rating them by using one of the silliest and obtuse litmus tests ever.

"How many rings does he have?" is a far too popular refrain from those who have little understanding of what the game of football is about or what it takes to get to a Super Bowl.

Manning was one of the best to ever play the game before he took the field for Sunday's AFC Championship Game against New England and nothing that happened in what turned into a rather easy 26-16 Broncos win was going to change that.

The fact that Manning clearly outplayed one of the few people on earth who can legitimately be called his peer, the Patriots' Tom Brady, certainly padded the resume a bit, at least for the legion of detractors who have made so-called "Peyton Hatin'" a cottage industry.

Manning threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns while operating the Denver offense with surgical precision. Particularly impressive was a a pair of 7- plus-minute touchdown drives, the second of which opened the third quarter in soul-crushing fashion, extending the Broncos' lead at the time to 20-3.

He completed 32-of-43 passes and upped his record to 5-4 over his last nine matchups with Brady after dropping the first six meetings in the rivalry between the two future Hall- of-Fame signal-callers. The two superstars have now each won a pair of home playoff games against one another.

"It's very rewarding when you put a lot of hard work into the offseason and the regular season and it pays dividends with a huge win," Manning said.

Demaryius Thomas was Manning's top target on Sunday, snaring seven receptions for 134 yards and a touchdown in the triumph. Julius Thomas added eight catches for 85 yards.

"I told myself, 'I'm going to put it all out there on the field,'" Demaryius Thomas said. "It's one more game to get to the Super Bowl. Time to do it for the older guys on the team."

Brady, who was looking to make his NFL record sixth Super Bowl appearance, was 24-of-38 for 277 yards and a touchdown for New England, which was toiling in its third straight AFC Championship Game.

The tag of coming up small in big games has haunted Manning since his college days at the University of Tennessee, where former Florida coach Steve Spurrier used to pile on Manning and the Volunteers by saying "you can't spell Citrus without UT," a reference to the Vols inability to get to the more high- profile Sugar Bowl, often settling for the Citrus Bowl.

Of course, a heck of a lot of other players have suited up with Manning over the years and a total of 88 not named Manning or Brady dressed for Sunday's affair. Of those, Manning's supporting cast was far superior to Brady's, something which hasn't exactly been a constant in Manning's postseason career.

The Pats' pass rush was rendered non-existent by Denver's offensive line while Broncos' defensive tackle Terrence Knighton dominated the interior and helped shut down the vaunted New England running game. Patriots receiver Danny Amendola, meanwhile, was invisible and Brady himself was wild high the few times something was available down the field.

Those kinds of things are all white nose to the everything is black-and-white crowd, the same group which wants to sacrifice Manning to the god of underachievers every time he loses a playoff game, something he has done 11 different times in his NFL career.

Most quarterbacks understand the job description and for the most part accept the fact they will be getting more credit than they deserve after a win and more blame than they should receive after a setback. That's the nature of being the face of the franchise and playing perhaps the most important position in all of sports.

In fact, as good as Manning was against the Patriots on Sunday, you can make a strong argument the real turning point came early in the second quarter when ex-Patriot Wes Welker laid the wood to Aqib Talib, sending New England's top cornerback to the sidelines with a knee injury.

Denver was ahead 3-0 at the time and Talib's absence set off a negative chain reaction in the Patriots' defensive backfield, one which will probably give Bill Belichick night terrors for months when he thinks about Alfonzo Dennard chasing around Demaryius Thomas or rookie Logan Ryan trying to stick with Welker and Co.

That said Manning more than held up his end of the bargain and clearly outplayed his long-time nemesis, something even his harshest detractors would have a hard time disputing. Heck, he even made losing more palatable for some of the Patriots.

"Losing is never easy," New England edge rusher Rob Ninkovich said. "But when you have somebody as talented as (Manning), who puts in as much work and effort, and has done it for so long, it's a little bit easier to swallow."

It's no easier to swallow for some of the Peyton hatin' crew, who move the goal posts when Manning wins the AFC Championship Game. The conference title tilt ceases to be a big game and the Super Bowl becomes the be all, end all.

And that's Manning's reality.

He plays at such a high level each and every season that it's always Super Bowl title or bust for him and his teams, a measuring stick which actually speaks to his greatness.

For me and many others, though, Peyton Manning is officially done playing with his peers. History is now his only opponent.

"He's been remarkable," Broncos coach John Fox said. "It's unprecedented what he did."