DENVER — If that turns out to be the great Peyton Manning’s last game, we’ll all certainly understand why.
Manning turns 39 years old in little more than two months, which means 40 is less than 15 months away. On Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts, it looked as if that day might already have arrived, for Manning looked every bit his age in a dispiriting, 24-13 loss to his old team, the ninth time in his storied career that he has led a team into the playoffs but has not been able to win a game.
It was as if the Denver Broncos veteran was aging right before our eyes, scattering inexplicable mistakes throughout the game.
In his post-game news conference, he all but confirmed that he realized that too.
When he was asked if he was coming back next season as planned, he said he could not answer, a striking departure from his recent comments that he would definitely return in 2015.
“My mindset right now is just disappointment after today’s game,” a disconsolate Manning said. “I kind of need to process this game and we’ll meet tomorrow. … I need to process this game, so I’m disappointed right now is what I am.”
Pressed further on the issue, Manning would not commit to returning next season.
“Yeah, I guess I can’t just give that simple answer. I’m processing it. So I can’t say that. I could not say that.”
It was a stark realization that he saw what we saw in his uninspiring, mistake-prone performance, and was now going to have to deal with it.
The Peyton Manning of old would not have had all the badly overthrown passes – six in all – when the Colts defense took away his options in the middle of the field. The old Manning would not have failed to run when 20 yards of open field stared him in the face on third and five at his own 25 on the first drive of the second half.
No, the old Manning had just turned into an old Manning.
“Those were my decisions,” Manning said of the poorly thrown deep balls on a day when he completed 26 of 46 passes for 211 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. “A couple of them were called to go that way. A couple of them had some other options with it and some shorter passes with it. I ended up taking some long shots. Any time you lose a game, you always look to some incompletions and throws you’d like to have back. … And then some other ones, I possibly could have, probably should have gone to a shorter throw.”
Broncos Coach John Fox wasn’t pleased with Manning’s decisions either.
“We did probably go to that well too many times,” he said.
Walking gingerly, appearing to slightly favor his injured left thigh, Manning was nothing like the quarterback Americans have come to know and respect. He was booed early and often in a surprisingly lackluster effort.
Manning would not blame his injury, which has “kind of hung around,” saying, “I felt good with it coming into the day.”
But something clearly wasn’t right, not only on this day, but as the long season went on.
“I didn’t play as well consistently in the second half of the season,” Manning said. “I can’t give you a great reason for that. I played well at times but not as consistently as I did in the first half of the season.”
Now, he and the Broncos have some hard decisions to make.
“I’ve always taken a pretty accurate look and fair evaluation of myself,” he said. “All I can say now is it’s just disappointing.”
Follow columnist Christine Brennan on Twitter @cbrennansports.
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