Peyton Manning has been here before. This time, however, with a Super Bowl title on the line, there are a few more questions about his health and whether this will be the final time we see No.18 on a football field.
The growing consensus is one of the NFL’s greatest of all time will hang up his cleats after Super Bowl 50. Win or lose, the career is over and the passing records are there to be broken. This was clearly Manning’s worst season in the NFL, plagued by injury and media doubt. The Denver Broncos are once again trying to win the big one without John Elway on the field. Can the quarterback hand-picked by arguably the greatest passer to play in Denver finally win one for his boss? Will this be a swan song, or will it be a nightmare just like two seasons ago when Seattle’s defense toyed with Denver’s offense?
Manning has said all the right things following the team’s win over the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game. This is not about Manning and his matchup against the Carolina Panthers. This is about the Broncos defense, a unit that has carried the team for most of the year, against the NFL’s best offense and a quarterback who has become the next big thing in this league. There is a sense, if the rumors are true, Manning will walk to the podium at some point soon and tell the football world it’s finally over.
Oh how a Super Bowl win would cap an amazing career and allow Manning to walk off into football’s sunset. Hollywood could not write a better script. With game being played north of movie land, it’s only fitting it should end here – hopefully with a smile on his face instead of a frown.
On the other side of the field, Carolina has become the darlings of football, led by Cam Newton. The Panthers are potent on offense and defense and have played a season full of enigmatic football, going from the most obscure undefeated team to the one the media still thinks is a bit overhyped. All Newton and Luke Kuechley and Thomas Davis have done all season is quiet the critics. The MVP of the league has done what no other signal caller has done with his arm and legs with some of the most overachieving pass catchers. That alone puts him a level above everyone else at the position this year.
I wrote a story two years ago, when Manning faced Seattle, that the matchup between himself and Russell Wilson wasn’t as crucial as some might have thought. The Seahawks defense proved me right, but I did say it was important for Manning to win that big game because he may never get a chance to get back to the Super Bowl. Regardless of all the passing records in 2013, time was creeping up on the former Tennessee Volunteer. This season, with poor stats and a nagging foot injury, Manning must win this one. There is no turning back and no, he won’t get another chance.
So much has been made over the years about superstars overstaying their welcome in this league. Dan Marino, Jim Kelly and Kurt Warner left when the time was right. Joe Namath hung around too long. Terry Bradshaw may have lasted a season too long. Manning, should this be the end, is getting out at the right time. Win or lose, we will honor him for his accolades – despite the fact the post season has been his nemesis.
Can the gunslinger put it together for one more game, turn into a game manager and rely on his defense to halt Carolina? Broncos fans are hoping so. The NFL is hoping so because of everything this man has meant to the league. Personally, I am hoping so. If for no other reason than for one of the greatest of all time to go out on top, not in a blaze of questions left unanswered.