That was either good fun or a cringe-inducing display of gridiron self-immolation. Either way, Brady-Manning Bowl XIV ended up being worth the hype, and that bodes well for February.
For 30 minutes of football, Sunday night's game between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots was sending shudders through National Football League headquarters in New York. Here it was, perhaps the most anticipated game of the year – two of the greatest quarterbacks in history playing on teams with Super Bowl aspirations – and both teams looked like Cro-Magnon man inventing the forward pass.
Peyton Manning's throws looked as though they were actually weeping as they wobbled uncertainly toward their targets in the wind. Tom Brady looked like a dim-witted artillery sergeant trying to find his range – one pass sailing high overhead to the sidelines, the next bouncing at a receiver's feet.
The problem, of course, was that the weather was suitable only for mushing sled dogs. OK, there was no snow. But it was cold, and the wind chill brought the temperature down to my-second-pair-of-long-johns-aren't-doing-anything territory.
In other words, we got a good sense of what it might be like when New York holds the Super Bowl in February in an outdoor stadium. And it wasn't pretty.
The Broncos began the evening by establishing the run. In the pass-happy NFL, no one has said "establish the run" with a straight face since 1976. Sure, retro is cool. How else could you explain the hideous Pittsburgh Steelers' uniforms last week? But retro football is bad. No one lamented the end of the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust era except the running backs' union.
The American people want passing. They want scoring. They want to add a hundreds placeholder to the scoreboard. They want to actually see contrails behind a Peyton Manning pass. What they got for the first 30 minutes Sunday night was a gridiron PowerPoint about why every team north of Washington, D.C., should build a domed stadium. The Broncos finished the first half leading 24-0, but they had hardly done anything to deserve it.
The Patriots had fumbled three times simply because the football was like a block of ice. They actually fumbled twice more but recovered those themselves. All those fumbles led directly to 17 Bronco points.
Perhaps even worse than that was the passing. When Peyton Manning and Tom Brady both look like they forgot their locker combination, it's not a good thing for football.
That's what NFL headquarters was left to contemplate. If Manning and Brady couldn't put together an entertaining game in this weather, then who in the name of John Madden could? If the weather in February in New York called for sub-freezing temperature and wind, the league might just consider calling the local YMCA to put one of those tennis bubble-thingys over the 50-yard line.
Then the second half came, and commissioner Roger Goodell could exhale. Brady apparently found his cold-weather mojo under the laundry basket at halftime and suddenly became unstoppable. Manning still looked as if he wanted to put a space heater in the backfield but rallied to lead the Broncos to a clutch fourth-quarter touchdown to tie the game and send it into overtime.
True, the Broncos fumbled three times and Manning threw an interception, for a grand total of seven turnovers in a game between two of the league's elite teams. But on this night, at least, it added to the drama.
Then, as is the Broncos' wont under Manning, they committed a catastrophically boneheaded play at a crucial moment to gift the game to the Patriots, 34-31. This time, it was special-teamer Tony Carter not paying attention to a Patriots punt, which knocked into him, allowing the Patriots to recover and kick an easy field goal. Last year, of course, safety Rahim Moore forgot to cover a Baltimore Ravens receiver on a Hail Mary in the playoffs.
But the NFL hasn't been about quality football in years. It's about parity, tension, and entertainment.
The league can only hope its Super Bowl will be this exciting.