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Peyton Manning will have work cut out for him in Super Bowl: Arthur

Bad quarterbacks don’t win the Super Bowl anymore. It’s hard to even find mediocre ones, really. Tom Brady wins Super Bowls, and Russell Wilson, and in the last 10 years, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning, age 30. Even Joe Flacco had 11 touchdowns and no picks the year he won it. This is the passing age, and the quickest way to get great is to have a quarterback, and protect him. Trent Dilfer is still the go-to reference for a championship game manager quarterback, 16 years later, the way Ray Lewis is the go-to reference for escaping a murder trial, along with O.J. There’s a reason.

And now Peyton Manning, age 39, is in the Super Bowl. It’s his fourth triponly two quarterbacks have made more, Brady and John Elway — and it’s the one nobody expected. Manning was awful this year, got benched, got accused of using Human Growth Hormone this year, and was terrible this year. It sounds like a duplication, but it’s not. Peyton Manning was at least two kinds of bad this year. Three if you include media leaks. Present-day Manning might be the worst quarterback to ever try to win the Super Bowl.

There were 34 quarterbacks who qualified for the league leaderboard in passer ratings this season. Peyton Manning was 34th. Only Blake Bortles of Jacksonville threw more interceptions — 18 to 17 — and Bortles needed an extra 275 passes to do it. Manning was 28th in yards per game, 28th in yards per attempt — ahead of Aaron Rodgers, weird — and 27th in completion percentage.

He can’t feel his fingertips, and his arm has become more and more noodle-like as time passes because time cooks you, slow or fast. The last few quarterbacks who fit this general statistical profile included Geno Smith, Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassell and John Skelton. This is like being in a police lineup with a bunch of guys who look like they slept in a hedge, or in their Wall Street CEO offices.

But Denver has defence lawyers that can get you out of almost anything. They had the eighth-best defence of the modern era by DVOA, the advanced calculation from Football Outsiders. It’s right there with the 2013 Seahawks defence that didn’t let a 55-touchdown Peyton Manning score in the Super Bowl until the end of the third quarter, by which time it was too late.

So yeah: Peyton Manning gets to go to the Super Bowl, and he will face a team that should scare people. They were up 31-0 at halftime against a very good Seattle team, and were up 24-7 at halftime against a very good Arizona team, and while those two very good teams played as if they were drunk, maybe Carolina makes teams act like they’re drunk. Cam Newton is the new thing, the new quarterback, the new great thing that has not been seen before, who laughs when he runs. He’s become a strange cultural target for daring to be black and exuberant and great. It’s going to be a long week in some quarters, in San Francisco.

And yes, Carolina will be favoured. Still, yes, Arizona’s Carson Palmer got the yips in the NFC Conference title game, but that wasn’t exactly a long journey. Denver’s defence was so good it made Tom Brady seem like he was seeing ghosts at times, like he was spooked. On one play he hesitated, tried to pull the ball back, jiggled on one foot like someone had a Brady voodoo doll, and then threw flat-footed, wide of Rob Gronkowski. Pressure can make anybody wobble.

So, Peyton Manning got to the Super Bowl. He was carried on the shoulder of a defence that got to Brady with four rushers, the way the Giants used to do. He got there because Von Miller ate Brady’s organic lunch. Manning got there because he didn’t make a mistake, and Brady made a couple.

And he got there because Stephen Gostkowski missed his first extra point in 524 attempts, and it forced the Patriots to go for two after Rob Gronkowski got them to the end zone in the last 30 seconds, and then Brady’s last pass got batted and intercepted. The Patriots played a sloppy game, and Denver’s defence stopped them on fourth down inside the Broncos’ 16-yard line, twice. But it was the extra point that did it, as much as anything.

It will be hard to imagine Manning succeeding against the ravenous Panthers, who reduced Palmer to a guy throwing his keys into a parking lot on the off chance it might start his car. The Broncos were 16th in total offence and first in defence, and that’s not crazy. The 2008 Steelers were 22nd and first, but at least they had a quarterback who could really throw. The 2013 Seahawks were 17th and first, but, same thing. Actually, along with Dilfer, Eli Manning in 2007 might be the closest thing to this — awful year, great defence. But he had an arm, too.

Peyton Manning doesn’t have an arm, not really, but he’s still got one last chance to match Eli, finally. When the TV guys told Newton he was playing Denver he seemed surprised, and he said, ‘We’re playing the sheriff.’ One last gunfight, and the old man is outgunned by a mile.