When we wrote this preview two years ago, it was all about Peyton’s last ride, a potential storybook ending for one of the game’s greatest quarterbacks and ambassadors on the sport’s biggest stage.
The 37-year-old gunslinger, fresh off another record-setting season, would dig deep one last time against the feared Seahawks, win his second Super Bowl title two years removed from major neck surgery and walk off into the sunset idolized and deified as the ultimate competitor capable of overcoming the longest of odds.
None of that stuff happened. Instead, Peyton Manning and the Broncos hit the pavement face-first against the Legion of Boom in Super Bowl XLVIII. Seattle rolled to a 43-8 win and Manning rolled one step closer to retirement.
Last year’s bid for the perfect ending came up short in the divisional playoffs against Manning’s former team, the Colts, and when Brock Osweiler replaced the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards in Week 10 after Manning threw 4 interceptions against the Chiefs, you had to figure the chances of a Disney-esque walk-off win in the Super Bowl were slim to none. You’d be better off burning your kid’s college fund on Powerball tickets.
Two months later, we’re dusting off the template from 2013 and, against all odds, writing the same damn story about the same damn quarterback who just won’t go away.
Manning, despite a season in which he threw only 9 touchdowns and posted the worst passer rating of his career by a country mile, makes his fourth Super Bowl appearance Sunday in San Francisco just one month after winning his job back from the struggling Osweiler in Week 17.
In an interesting twist, Manning again faces a younger, loaded opponent with a younger, more agile quarterback. Instead of Russell Wilson, it’s Carolina’s Cam Newton, who simultaneously dabbed his way into the hearts of urban youth and the doghouse of white America with his skin-tight zebra leggings and equally extravagant touchdown celebrations.
The Panthers flirted with perfection for 14 weeks until Atlanta ended their historic run in Week 16, then cruised through the postseason with wins over the defending champion Seahawks and Cardinals, dropping an NFL-record 49 points on Arizona in the conference title game.
The Broncos were underdogs two years ago against the Seahawks and will be underdogs again Sunday against this unlikely juggernaut, a team that finished 7-8-1 in 2014 and entered this season as a 50-1 long shot to win the Super Bowl. Scouts doubted whether or not Newton – the No. 1 overall pick in 2011 – had the accuracy or poise in the pocket to process the complexity of the NFL passing game and win on a weekly basis, especially without his projected No. 1 receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, who blew out his knee in August.
At best, the Panthers looked good enough to win the NFC South, the same division they won with a losing record last season, but not much else. The end result proves why most predictions are utter nonsense. Anchored by the league’s 7th-ranked defense and the NFL’s best tight end in 2015, Greg Olsen – yes, you read that correctly – Newton emerged into a tremendous leader on and off the field, setting a new career high with 35 touchdown passes and only 10 interceptions while rushing for an additional 10 touchdowns.
The Panthers have it all – the young, brash quarterback who can make things happen on the fly and doesn’t care what you think; the young, brash linebacker, Luke Kuechly, who seems to get better and better each season; and the young, brash cornerback, Josh Norman, who talks the talk and walks the walk (just ask Odell Beckham Jr.).
The smart money says Manning is done regardless of Sunday’s outcome. After beating New England in the AFC title game, he told Bill Belichick this might be his “last rodeo,” and while he sidestepped the obvious questions during Super Bowl week, it’s unlikely the Broncos reinvest in Manning now that they’ve seen what they might have in Osweiler.
With one more chance to write the perfect ending, Manning will have to rely on more help than he’s needed – or had – in previous Super Bowl runs. He’s not nearly as inept as the New England media wanted you to believe leading up to the AFC title game two weeks ago, but he’s more Greg Maddux than Nolan Ryan these days, relying more on patience, intelligence and experience than pure power and strength.
He can get away with it because the Broncos boast the league’s No. 1-ranked defense, a defense far superior to any of the defenses Manning played with during his prime in Indianapolis or his first few seasons in Denver. Manning’s playoff failures are a bit over-exaggerated. The nine one-and-dones are a tough pill to swallow, but Manning has been hamstrung by some pretty lousy luck in his postseason career, including, but not limited to, liquored-up, idiot kickers missing critical field goals, inadequate defenses and a lack of stability on the executive side of the football.
Keep in mind this is Manning’s fourth Super Bowl appearance with four different coaches, a remarkable contrast to the foundation Tom Brady – the quarterback he’s compared to the most – has had in New England with Belichick at the helm for 16 years.
The NFL can change the rules and promote gaudy passing numbers all it wants, but defense still wins championships. The Patriots have won four titles in the Belichick era with the league’s 6th-, 1st-, 2nd- and 8th-ranked defenses, and in the previous 49 Super Bowls, only 7 of the winners finished the regular season with a defense ranked worse than 10th.
There’s no shame in Manning needing to rely on Chris Harris, Aqib Talib, Von Miller, etc., to help him end his remarkable career with a second Super Bowl ring. His legacy has already been written – he’s thrown for more yards and touchdowns than any quarterback in NFL history and owns countless more records – and nothing can change that, not even another loss Sunday in San Francisco, but it’s hard to argue that a lifetime 2-2 Super Bowl record doesn’t look much more appetizing than 1-3.
For what it’s worth, Manning, win or lose, will also retire with a 3-2 head-to-head record against his archenemy Brady in the postseason, including 3-1 in conference title games, so even though Brady will wind up with more Super Bowl rings when it’s all said and done, another victory Sunday for Manning gives him a second title while allowing him to holler, “Scoreboard!” against Belichick and the Patriots in the games that really count when comparing the two. Love him or hate him, it’ll become that much harder for anyone to knock Manning if he pulls this off at the age of 39 when everyone thought he was finished in October.
Without making a solid prediction, let’s simply acknowledge this is Manning’s best, and final, chance to win another Super Bowl. No matter who wins, Super Bowl 50 won’t be nearly as lopsided as Super Bowl XLVIII. As good as Carolina’s defense is, Denver’s is better. The Panthers nearly flushed two insurmountable leads this season, first against the Giants in December and later against the Seahawks in the divisional playoffs, so there are some holes Carolina needs to plug before taking the field Sunday.
Manning won’t need to win this on his own, but he’ll probably need to make a few big plays like he did against New England in order for the Broncos to have a chance. It’s like déjà vu all over again. Who’d have guessed we’d be here after that debacle in New York two years ago?
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