JERSEY CITY, N.J.
One of them is winding down. The other is finishing up. One of them is a giant in his sport. The other is the shortest guy in his huddle. One of them is rooted like the elm tree on the corner of your block. The other is a free-wheeling blur on his way to somewhere else. Here's a question: Are we sure quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson play the same position? As it turns out, there is more than one way to the end zone. There is Manning, the surgeon, standing firm in the pocket, carving up defenses on his way to the Hall of Fame. And there is Wilson, spinning and scrambling and creating headaches as he goes. Think of Manning as a classic guitar. Think of Wilson as a jazz riff. Today, they play each other in the Super Bowl.
Manning is aiming at history; Wilson is trying to start a little of his own.
The shadow of Peyton Manning begins to the east, somewhere over Long Island. It spreads from Staten Island to Yonkers, from East Rutherford, N.J., and across Manhattan. By the minute, it is getting larger.
It spreads across a game, across a sport, across the history of a league. It drapes the Broncos, and the Seahawks, and everyone else. It covers the Empire State Building, and the Statue of Liberty, and Times Square. It engulfs the fans, and the media, and the record book.
This is Manning's game.
And if he can win it, it will cement his legacy.
Manning can claim his second world championship today, and with it, he can claim to be the best quarterback ever to play the game. This is the legacy that comes with winning multiple Super Bowls. Yes, Joe Montana will still have more rings, but when you combine a second Super Bowl with all the records that Manning has set, his place in history seems secure.
These days, immortality is Manning's end zone. In some ways, yes, he is competing against Wilson and his Seahawks. In others, though, he is competing against Johnny Unitas and John Elway and Dan Marino and Brett Favre and Terry Bradshaw. One more win, and he will be remembered as the quickest draw his league has ever seen.
And if he loses? Well, then the whispers start anew that Manning stumbles just short of the big victory.
By comparison, Wilson has an easy time of it. All he has to compete against is the Broncos. All he has to do is win a game and let history take care of itself.
"One day, I want to be like him in terms of the way he thinks," Wilson said. "He's just a master of the game. I'm working to get there. He's built this unbelievable legacy. He's one of the best, if not the best, quarterbacks to ever play the game."
It's fair to say that Manning has a bigger challenge today. The Seattle defense, after all, was first in the NFL this season. The Denver defense? It was 19th.
So what goes into a legacy? Consider this: No quarterback ever has had as many fourth-quarter comebacks as Manning (40). Only one quarterback has won more games. Only one has thrown for more yards. Only one has thrown for more TDs. Only one has a better quarterback rating.
But Manning will be remembered as more than a stat machine. He also has completed one of the greatest personal comebacks in league history.
Go back only two years and there were questions whether Manning would play again. He had four surgeries on his neck, and the muscles of his upper body had withered. Yes, Manning admitted, he might be finished.
"A lot of people say it's not a major surgery unless it's your own," Manning said. "When you're dealing with a neck surgery, I think it's pretty serious stuff. My brother Cooper dealt with neck surgeries and injuries and had to give up football. That made a big impact on my life. When he was injured, they did tests on me and (younger brother) Eli. They said our necks weren't perfect, but they were stable enough to play football.
"I thought maybe I had been on borrowed time this entire time. I was fortunate to have 20 years of health to play football. If that was going to be the end of it, I really had a peace about it."
Maybe that's why these unpromised days are so good for Manning. He admits he has learned to smell a few roses along the way. After all, he turns 38 in March. Along the way, he has learned to turn off game film to watch The Sopranos or Boardwalk Empire.
"I am not a robot," Manning said. "Maybe at one time when I was younger, I might have been. There was a time I would come home from practice and I would be up until 1 or 1:30 in the morning because I had to watch all four of their preseason games. I thought if I didn't, the world would come to an end. Now, maybe I'm a little more human."
When they speak of Manning in the years to come, he might come across as a little more than that. For years, he has built a reputation as one of the most intelligent quarterbacks in the game. Few carve up defenses the way he does.
Yet, Manning frowns when his legacy comes up.
"I've been asked about my legacy since I was 25 years old," he says. "I'm not sure you can have a legacy when you're 25. I thought you had to be 70 to have a legacy. I'm down the homestretch of my career, but I'm still in it. It's still playing out."
One legacy? Last week, Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman talked about the number of "ducks" that Manning throws.
"I believe it to be true," Manning said, laughing. "They say he's a smart player, and I don't think that's a real reach with what he's saying. I do throw ducks. I've thrown a lot of yards and touchdown ducks. I'm actually quite proud of it."
Said Broncos tight end Julius Thomas: "Whatever animal you want to use to describe Peyton's passes, I'll take them every day. Whether that be duck, goose or cat passes, I'll continue taking them."
Wilson, on the other hand, has sailed through the week without nearly as much scrutiny.
He is only 25, and already, Wilson has established a reputation as an overachiever. There is a flair to his game, of matching impossible escapes and then hitting a receiver downfield once he reaches the corner.
If Manning's legacy is a collection of statistics, Wilson's is a compilation of moments, of evading rushes and running headlong toward the sideline, then pulling up and hitting a big pass.
He could have been a second baseman, you know. Everyone told Wilson that he was destined for baseball. The thing was Wilson liked playing football.
"I expected to be here," Wilson said. "I believe in my talent. I believe in everything I've been given. I expect to play at a high level, and I expect to be fighting for the Super Bowl every year. I put all the hard work in, and I expect great things."
For two years, Wilson has surprised people. But here's the thing: Manning threw for more touchdowns this season than Wilson has over the past two. Yeah, Wilson is kind of young for legacy talk.
"I think that a legacy talks about what you stand for," Wilson said. "I think the first thing is my faith, and my work ethic, my attention to details, just winning football games and finding ways to win. It's not always going to be pretty. Sometimes, it's going to be one of those games where you hand it off most of the time. Hopefully, I play for 20 years. Hopefully, I can look back and say, 'Man, that was a great career.' "
For Wilson, the real judging begins today. Quarterbacks are judged by their Super Bowls.
Just ask Manning. Today, he could become unchallenged.