DENVER, CO – JANUARY 19: John Elway, executive vice president of football operations for the Denver Broncos, celebrates with Peyton Manning #18 after they defeated the New England Patriots 26 to 16 during the AFC Championship game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 19, 2014 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

John Elway was not a superstar quarterback in his final season. He was 38 years old, oftentimes a rickety 38-year-old, and he was no longer what could be a considered an elite quarterback in 1998. He finished 11th in the league with a 59.0 completion percentage, 12th with 2,806 passing yards, 13th in passing yards per game and ninth in touchdowns thrown. He was, for the most part, an average NFL quarterback.

But what a team the Broncos were that season. Running back Terrell Davis rushed for 2,008 yards and 21 touchdowns — both league highs –and the rush defense, led by linebackers Bill Romanowski and John Mobley, was the third-best in the NFL. Denver featured receivers Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey and tight end Shannon Sharpe. Hell, even backup quarterback Bubby Brister, who had to start a quarter of the season for the injured Elway, went 4-0 with a better completion percentage, touchdown-to-interception ratio and quarterback rating than Denver’s full-time starter.

The 14-2 Broncos were loaded, and Elway, for as great as he had been, didn’t have to be the superstar quarterback in 1998.

He played that role in the final game of his career, leading the Broncos to the Super Bowl XXXIII title vs. the Falcons and, in the process, took home the Super Bowl MVP award. But up until that point in the season, he was a chronically-sore middle-aged man who struggled to get out of bed in the morning, and as one AP story noted, “his body has begun to betray him.” He even said earlier in the season that his main job was to hand the ball to Davis.

“I can’t make the big plays, but I think I’m probably a better quarterback,” Elway said a few days before the Super Bowl. “… The talent we have on this team, that makes up for a lot of my weaknesses.”

Now, Elway looks down from the owner’s box upon the 39-year-old Peyton Manning as he tries to lead Denver to a Super Bowl championship for the first time since Elway exited the Pro Player Stadium field in Miami. Manning, it just so happens, is in a similar position as Elway was 17 seasons ago.

In 2015, Manning has not been the Manning we’ve observed during his 17-year career. Like Elway, Manning’s body has begun to break down, and he’s lost some of the physical gifts that have made him one of the best quarterbacks in history.

That inconsistency was on display during Denver’s 23-16 win vs. the Steelers on Sunday. Manning, making his first start in two months, threw wobbly balls. He again proved that he no longer has the arm strength he once possessed. He was inaccurate. Like Elway in 1998, Manning in 2015 was basically an average NFL quarterback who missed almost half the season with injuries. Hell, Brock Osweiler had to start seven games, going 5-2 with a better completion percentage, touchdown-to-interception ratio and quarterback rating than Denver’s full-time starter.

Like Elway, the talent on the current Broncos team can make up for plenty of weaknesses, and though Manning, so long the engine for any team he was on, probably wouldn’t admit to enjoying life in the backseat, acquiescing to others is probably the best bet for Denver success. Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson have combined for a solid rushing attack this season, and the Broncos defense has been the best in the NFL. Meanwhile, Manning has been mocked because, at times, he’s played horrendously.

Yet, Manning’s arm and mind still contain a little of that magic. On Sunday — with his receivers dropping seven passes, the most in any NFL game this year, and the team rarely converting on third down — the Broncos had to rely on their defense to stymie Pittsburgh. But with Denver losing 13-12 in the fourth quarter, Manning put together a 13-play, 65-yard drive that took 6:52 off the clock and ended in an Anderson one-yard touchdown run.

For most of that drive, Manning’s job was to hand off to Hillman and Anderson, but on third-and-12, Manning made this throw.

It was vintage Manning in the clutch.

“He might not throw 50 touchdown passes or throw for 5,000 yards ever again, but one thing Peyton Manning never loses is that fourth-quarter shit he got,” Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib said, via “We got him that one turnover, and he came out and did his fourth-quarter shit, and we won the game. There’s only about three or four quarterbacks in the league that got that shit, and you’d best believe he’s one of them.”

Manning and the Broncos won’t be the favorites when they face the Patriots and Tom Brady in the AFC title game, and if they advance past New England to the Super Bowl, they’ll likely be underdogs vs. either the Cardinals or the Panthers.

But in Super Bowl XXXIII, Elway, in the final game of his career, played like a superstar, like the Hall of Famer he’d be. With Elway watching Manning from high above the field, Manning doesn’t have to be the shining star. He just needs to be a complimentary piece with the ability to showcase that fourth-quarter shit when the team needs him most.

About Josh Katzowitz

Writes sports for Forbes and covers Internet culture for the Daily Dot. Formerly covered the NFL for and college sports for the now-defunct Cincinnati Post. Also has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post. Has penned books about Johnny Manziel, Sid Gillman and the University of Cincinnati football program.