In October 1781, the stage had been set for the final major battle of the American Revolutionary War - the one that would finally make Great Britain sue for peace with its rebellious colonists. British Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis had encamped his 7,200 soldiers at Yorktown, Virginia, with orders to fortify the town and prepare a deep water port. Meanwhile, under a shroud of secrecy (not to mention subterfuge) American General George Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau were collecting a force of over 18,000 American and French troops to lay siege to the British fortifications.
After two weeks of edging their forces ever closer to the town (and digging thousands of feet of trenches) the American and French forces began a brutal artillery barrage on the British positions. When Lord Cornwallis finally surrendered his army on October 19, Washington - remembering that the British had refused the similar request of a surrendering American force earlier in the war - refused to allow the British the so-called Honors Of War: to march out of Yorktown with flags flying and muskets shouldered, while their bands played a tune honoring the victor.
Instead, as the British left Yorktown - with flags furled and muskets reversed - legend has it that their drummers and fifers played the popular British marching tune The World Turn'd Upside Down.
Even Dalton Trumbo might have had difficulty writing a better script.
The Broncos Peyton Manning comes into a home game needing just a three yard pass to become the all-time leader in passing yards, and a single victory to have more wins than any other quarterback. Facing the Broncos is the Chiefs - a team Manning hasn't just dominated, but has outright owned throughout his career. Even better, the Chiefs would have rookie cornerback Marcus Peters covering one of Manning's outstanding wide receivers. Never mind that this same rookie returned an interception for a touchdown in the last meeting between the teams; Manning's career has been built on taking advantage of exactly these kinds of situations.
The Chiefs graciously defer when they win the toss, giving Manning the ball to start the game. The Broncos toy with the Chiefs, calling two rushing plays to open the drive. But everybody knows what is coming. In the stands of Whatever-Company-Is-Now-Sponsoring Mile High Stadium, the Denver fans hold their signs high. On the sidelines, a representative of the Hall of Fame stands by, prepared to whisk the record-setting football to Canton in a hermetically-sealed case. In the TV truck, the graphics are prepared, and the director whispers instructions into the earpieces of the commentators for the Big Moment.
As Manning drops back and throws on third down, even I get caught up in the excitement. Watching at home, I see that the ball has been thrown deep down the left side to Vernon Davis. It's way more than three yards. Here it comes!
Interception. By none other than rookie CB Marcus Peters.
And just like that... the world turn'd upside down.
There's no doubt: Peyton Manning will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame at the soonest possible moment. You know, of course, that Manning now leads all other QBs in career passing yards. He also leads in touchdown passes, game-winning drives and fourth quarter comebacks. He is second only to Brett Favre in attempts and completions, and to Aaron Rodgers in adjusted net yards per passing attempt. In career completion percentage, he is tied for fifth with Tony Romo. He is sixth in career NFL passer rating, behind Rodgers, Romo, Russell Wilson, Steve Young and Tom Brady. Pro Football Reference's AV stat quantifies a player's "approximate value" to a team. Manning leads all NFL players in career AV - ahead of Ray Lewis, Jerry Rice, Reggie White, Favre and Brady.
Of course, some of these numbers reflect Manning's longevity. Eighteen years is a very long time to be an NFL starter - and that in itself is quite an accomplishment. But what really sets Manning apart is the way he has played the game - a game that will forever be different because of the way he has played it. He has no peer in reading defenses, and adjusting to them. No one can make these reads - or find the favorable receiver/defender matchup - more quickly and accurately than Manning. This is why - despite the fact that he has played behind some questionable offensive lines - his career sack percentage is lower than any other QB. Manning's head coaches have had the good sense to recognize that Manning's strong suit wasn't his athleticism, but rather his field vision, intelligence - and maybe most important - his ability to act quickly under pressure. So they tailored their offenses to make best use of his skills, and as a result, he is tied with Favre for the most career wins by a QB.
Simply because of Manning, NFL personnel executives are no longer just seeking QB prospects with intelligence, arm strength, mobility or athleticism. Today they are also seeking the additional - nearly intangible - qualities that Manning possesses. So while every personnel executive is looking for the next Peyton Manning, it's fair to ask if they will ever find another quite like him; few college offenses are built to showcase the abilities Manning has displayed in the NFL.
On the Broncos next drive - after Manning is strip-sacked on the opening play - Denver wisely calls a short pass to end the distraction. The four yard completion to Ronnie Hillman puts Manning over the top. The Denver crowd stands and cheers. The game is stopped, and the ball is spirited away. The TV graphics are dutifully displayed, and the announcers spend a few seconds talking about the Big Historical Accomplishment. Manning waves to the crowd, but you can see it on his face: he knows he is in trouble - deep, deep trouble. I don't know exactly what is going through his mind, but I know what is going through mine:
Denver goes three and out on that drive, and the next one, too. On the next, Manning runs his most successful drive of the day, picking up two first downs and 25 yards - before being intercepted by Sean Smith. Three and a half minutes later, the Chiefs are leading 13-0.
Now, even the TV announcers know Manning is in deep, deep trouble. At halftime, the New York anchor crew - you know: the guys who would pick any team quarterbacked by Peyton Manning to beat any other team with a 3-5 record - is calling for him to be benched in favor of backup Brock Osweiler. Midway through the third quarter, they get their wish. Osweiler promptly goes three and out, but on the next possession, he directs Denver's longest drive of the day: 15 plays for 75 yards in 7:15 - before being intercepted by Eric Berry.
You know: the guy who one year ago, didn't even know he had cancer.
It ends up being a very bad result for the Broncos. But it's an even worse result for Peyton Manning. It's far and away the worst game of his career, with an NFL passer rating of 0.0. By now, you may know that Peyton's brother Eli and father Archie have had games with passer ratings of 0.0, too. But in fairness to the Manning family, it should be noted that 0.0 games are more common than you might imagine; it's not hard to do if - for whatever reason - you throw only a handful of passes in a game. However, since 1960, only 21 ratings of 0.0 have been recorded in games where a QB attempted 20 or more passes.
And the only Manning on that list is named Peyton.
It's possible that Peyton Manning has started his last game in the NFL. His fatal flaw - displayed most prominently in Super Bowl XLVIII, and again this past Sunday - is that he doesn't recover well after his confidence is shaken. Once upon a time, Manning could depend on his athletic ability to overcome this problem - you don't amass 54 game winning drives in your career if you can't somehow recover when things take a turn for the worse.
But those days are over.
The evidence was there after the Broncos lost the Super Bowl, but it was difficult to see in the glare reflected by Manning's spectacular 2013 season. Now - especially behind Denver's offensive line - it is obvious to everyone. The plain fact is that in 2015, Manning is playing worse than in his rookie season, when the Colts finished 3-13. And this isn't about comparing the Peyton Manning who has DirecTV with the Peyton Manning who has cable. By numerous measures, Manning has consistently been among the worst QBs in the entire league in 2015.
Denver's 7-2 record is the product of a superb defense - not to mention the outstanding receivers on Denver's roster, who have routinely been pulling Manning's butt out of the fire. To be sure, Manning's football IQ - along with his uncanny ability to pick apart an opposing defense with a mere glance - are as good as they have ever been. But none of that does him any good if he lacks the physical tools to act, or even the time to do so.
I can't blame Peyton Manning for coming back in 2014. After such an astonishing season, and after spending much of his career as one of the best quarterbacks in the league - but one who was labeled "can't win in the playoffs" - it's hard to fault the man for trying to be the first QB to win a Super Bowl for two different teams.
But I can - and do - fault him for coming back in 2015.
When discussing my ideas for this article with my beautiful wife Terri (who deserves a shout out for being eight games up in her football pool - including picking the Chiefs against Denver) she pointed out that it wasn't fair to blame Manning for having the competitive drive to keep playing; this drive is a big part of why he has been such a great player. She's my wife, so of course she is correct! (Momma didn't raise no fool, you know!) But Peyton Manning doesn't play golf or tennis, or run marathons. In those sports, success or failure reflects only on the individual. But Manning's teammates depend on him to be honest about his ability to play competently. If Manning couldn't admit that his play at the end of 2014 had dropped off considerably, he was being dishonest with his teammates - and even worse, he was being dishonest with himself.
And I don't want to hear about Manning's "injury." Former AP writer Matt Verderame put it more succinctly than I ever could:
Funny, ESPN reports Manning has been hurt since July. Didn't hear about the injury until he got clowned by the #Chiefs— Matt Verderame (@MattVerderame) November 16, 2015
Let's recognize this for what it is: an excuse to put Manning on the bench, and see what Osweiler can do before Denver's season collapses on itself. To coin a phrase... it's nothing more than a #Peytoncuse.
By now, I know what you're thinking: other than mentioning the names of two of the five Chiefs who intercepted Broncos passes during the game, that damn Dixon hasn't said a word about the Chiefs!
Don't worry. I am merely practicing for the day that I will be a famous, highly paid national TV analyst, and will therefore know that the only player on the field who can affect the outcome of a game is the quarterback. Or - if he calls a different play than I would - maybe the head coach.
In fact, the Chiefs defense was very good on Sunday. Recording five sacks - more than in any game against Denver since 2004, and more than any game against a Peyton Manning team ever - the defense was in the Broncos backfield all day. By PFF's reckoning, Denver's QBs were hit five other times, and hurried 19 times - all this through 52 dropbacks by the Denver offense. Justin Houston recorded a PFF grade of 9.4 on the afternoon. Eric Berry was hitting people not only like he'd never had cancer, but like he'd never even heard of cancer. And Marcus Peters? He may be a rookie that is going to get beat on some long plays, but this kid is afraid of nothing! The defense played with aggression, intensity and swagger - in short, like the defense we expected to see all season, and that we have seen in the last five weeks.
The performance of the offense wasn't nearly as praiseworthy, of course. You can bemoan field goals instead of touchdowns all you like - and that's something we all want the Chiefs to do better - but they did score more against the vaunted Denver defense than any other team this season. On short fields? Sure. With dink and dunk passing? You bet!
(Cue the 300 comment subthread about whether Charcandrick West was the first or second read on the 80 yard TD pass, what Alex Smith could and couldn't see, and which direction the free safety was leaning. I swear... sometimes there is more argument over a single Alex Smith play than any single frame of the Zapruder film! Come to think of it, why weren't AP commenters appointed to the Warren Commission?)
But like it or not, that's precisely the way this Kansas City team has been constructed: to dominate on defense, and to do enough to win on offense. And both phases are finally finding their rhythm. Since the beginning of Week 5 - when the Chiefs defense awoke from its slumber - the Chiefs have allowed fewer points than any other team in the NFL, and have a point differential second only to New England.
If the Chiefs can maintain this level of play - which is certainly a big "if" - they are going to be a tough team to beat in the season's final weeks. Just two weeks ago, anyone who suggested that the Chiefs might have a shot to win the AFC West would have been dismissed as a raving idiot. But now - with uncertainty surrounding who will be under center for the Broncos down the stretch - the AFC West might be wide open.
Yep. The world turn'd upside down.