For the first time in his career, Peyton Manning did not take a team to the Super Bowl, but he went with one. • At 39, Manning likens himself to an aging fastball pitcher who can't throw 95 mph anymore, the loss of arm strength a result of four neck surgeries. "He can still work the corners and get guys out," Manning said. This season, he was pulled from a game for the first time as a pro after throwing four interceptions, missed six others recovering from a torn plantar fascia near his left heel and watched backup Brock Osweiler go 5-2. In Week 17, he was a backup for the first time since the start of his freshman season at Tennessee, then came off the bench to rally the Broncos to a win. • Yet with a win today in Super Bowl 50 over Carolina, Manning could enjoy the perfect ending to his storied career, riding off in the proverbial sunset on a white Bronco.
Manning has refused to say Super Bowl 50 will be his last game, but he nearly conceded as much after the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 24 when he told Patriots coach Bill Belichick, "this could be my last rodeo."
On Monday, Manning didn't seem ready to close the door.
"Maybe I hit the fountain of youth in the next month and I play another 10 years," Manning said. Teammates say he hasn't revealed anything and if he could elude the Panthers pass rush the way he did the question about his future, the Broncos are in good shape.
"Yeah, I haven't made up my mind, but I don't see myself knowing that until after the season," Manning said. "Whatever cliche you want to use, but I kind of stay in the moment and focus on the task at hand and just deal with this week. That's what I've done all season."
Of course, Manning's legacy as one of the NFL's greatest quarterbacks is secure regardless of today's outcome. In addition to his record five MVP awards, Manning won a world championship with the Colts in the 2006 season and made two other Super Bowl appearances, both losses. He is so well-branded and beloved that even when scrutiny hits — such as the Al Jazeera report about HGH use that he vehemently denied — NFL fans seem to shout down the noise.
Think about this. With a win tonight, Manning would find himself in an even more rare company of quarterbacks with two Super Bowl rings: John Elway, his brother Eli Manning, Roger Staubach, Bart Starr, Bob Griese, Jim Plunkett and Ben Roethlisberger.
But there is an even more special club Manning could join — iconic players who had a walkoff win in a championship to finish their career, a list that includes his boss Elway, the Broncos' general manager; Jerome Bettis; Ray Lewis; and Michael Strahan.
"When you get to Year 19 and kind of deal with some injuries and things going on, (winning the Super Bowl would) be a good way to go out," Eli Manning said on a conference call. "I don't know if it is, but because of that possibility, I hope that he can win this game and if he decides to hang it up, go out on top."
Of course, things could go badly in a hurry for Manning and the Broncos today.
While Manning is one story line, another is Cam Newton, the dabbing and dashing quarterback of the Panthers.
Revered or reviled for his touchdown celebrations, Newton, at 6 feet 5 and (arguably) 255 pounds, is the MVP this season and has mastered his craft. Unlike Manning, he can beat a team from inside or outside the pocket and a Super Bowl title would make the Panthers 18-1 and one of the greatest teams in Super Bowl history.
If the Panthers jump to a big lead today, Manning could be punished worse than he was by the Seahawks two years ago in Super Bowl XLVIII.
"I am just very grateful for the opportunity," Manning said of playing in his fourth Super Bowl. "It's not something you just want to hurry up and get through the week and get through the game. … I keep probably repeating myself but I'm honored to be a part of it and the other three that I played in, I was honored to be a part of those as well."
Win or lose, Manning has some pretty good consultants to lean on in his own family with Eli and their dad, Archie, to discuss whether to continue playing. Does a win make it easier to walk away? Or if he feels healthy a month from now, does he want to try to play one more season?
"It's a very nice thing to have," Elway said this week, "knowing you can always look back and have a real positive thought (about your last game).
"It's easy to toe the line and say, 'I might retire.' But to take the final step over the line is always very difficult. It's a hard step to take."