EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Peyton Manning's eyes got wide as the ball zipped past his helmet and into the end zone.
Manning spent the past two weeks trying to envision and work through every possible scenario that he and his Denver Broncos could face in the Super Bowl against the Seattle Seahawks. It's hard to believe that even once Manning imagined not being able to catch the game's opening snap.
Yet just 12 seconds into Super Bowl XLVIII, before Manning had thrown a pass or handed off to a running back, the Broncos trailed 2-0. It was only the second truly botched exchange between Manning and center Manny Ramirez all season.
But it was just mistake after mistake after mistake, so many errors, by so many Broncos, that the first snap and safety will be remembered as just the first bad moment in a night filled with them for Denver, which lost 43-8.
Yet it was the moment that seemed to change so much for Manning, who on Saturday night received his fifth NFL MVP award. Suddenly, the quarterback who had been so upbeat in the days leading up to the Super Bowl, telling jokes and stories, reflecting on his career-altering neck surgeries and deflecting talk about potential retirement, was rattled, and his brilliant 2013 season, perhaps the best of his brilliant career, ended with his worst game since signing with the Broncos last year.
But for a team that scored 606 points this season, 2-0 hardly seemed insurmountable. Neither did 5-0, or 8-0, nor maybe even 22-0 at halftime -- not when Manning could remind his teammates about that time they rallied from down 24-0 to the San Diego Chargers.
He threw two first-half interceptions, including one that was returned 69 yards for a Seattle touchdown, and failed to lead the Broncos to a first down in the first quarter. Both interceptions came on poorly thrown passes - off-target wobblers Manning tossed with Seattle defenders in his face or batting at his arm.
Those mistakes were Manning's, but he wasn't the only Bronco to falter. Two days after Broncos head coach John Fox said in his final pre-Super Bowl news conference that the "star players have to be great in championship games," few of Broncos who were so special in leading Denver to its first Super Bowl appearance in 15 years played well.
The offensive line that had barely allowed Manning to be touched in two AFC playoff games (and hadn't allowed a sack) couldn't handle Seattle's ferocious front seven, as Manning had little time to throw and rarely looked comfortable in the pocket. Even if there was time for Manning to throw, the Broncos' receivers struggled to get open deep against Seattle's physical defensive backs.
Even the Broncos' best offensive player Sunday, receiver Demaryius Thomas, lost a fumble in the third quarter while trying to extend a 23-yard catch with a stiff-arm to kill the Broncos' first promising drive. Thomas scored the Broncos' first touchdown later in the quarter, on a 14-yard pass from Manning, but that score (and subsequent two-point conversion), only cut Seattle's lead to 36-8.
Denver's defense, meanwhile, a group that held Tom Brady and the New England Patriots and Philip Rivers and the Chargers to three points each in the first three quarters of their previous playoff games, held Seattle to a pair of early field goals and largely contained Marshawn Lynch, yet struggled against the Seahawks' passing game that was rejuvenated by the return of Percy Harvin.
Harvin, who scored a touchdown on the opening kickoff of the second half, was dangerous on end-around and sweep plays, while Seattle's other receivers found plenty of separation from Denver's defensive backs. When Jermaine Kearse broke four tackles on his way to the end zone on a third-quarter touchdown, Denver's defense was done.
If the Broncos' were devastated by their 2012 playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens - a loss they used as motivation throughout this year - this game left the team and its fans stunned, with good reason. Denver hadn't been held to less than 20 points all season, and had never been blown out in the Manning Era. In 35 previous games, the Broncos lost only seven times, and never by more than 10 points.
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