The Broncos converted just one of 14 third downs. The offense scored as many touchdowns (one) as the defense. Manning’s lone contribution there was completing a two-point conversion to reserve wide receiver Bennie Fowler in what will likely be the last NFL pass he ever throws.
“We thought it would be a field-position game,” Manning said. “We would all love to have that 31-0 lead. It’s not really what we’ve been built to be.”
Nor is Manning capable of what he once was. His lack of velocity was on display once again with several passes that easily could have gotten intercepted.
It doesn’t matter now that the Broncos won.
Besides, it’s far more fitting to reflect upon what Manning has accomplished in his 18-year NFL career than a middling performance against the Panthers.
Prior to Sunday’s game, the biggest knock on Manning was postseason failings. His playoff career record was 11-13 before this season. The fact he won a championship with the 2006 Indianapolis Colts was sometimes overshadowed by two other Super Bowl losses, especially as his biggest quarterbacking rival – Tom Brady – was collecting four rings with New England.
Manning won’t catch Brady, but his brother Eli no longer has family bragging rights with two Super Bowl wins of his own.
The pressure Manning was feeling entering Sunday’s game was compounded by the sense of finality surrounding it. He made sure to reach out and thank coaches who helped him along the way. Childhood friends made the journey to the Bay Area knowing this could be it. A Saturday night speech Manning gave to the team became teary as he thanked Broncos players for “letting me be part of the journey.”
What a journey it was. Manning began the season by tossing 17 interceptions in the first 10 games before heading to the bench with a foot injury. Had he played better, backup Brock Osweiler would have kept the starting job even when Manning was healthy again.
When Manning returned in the second half of a Week 17 game against San Diego, he was a full-fledged “game manager” whose biggest contributions would be efficiency and avoiding turnovers rather than operating a high-octane passing attack.
“He didn’t have to go out there and do it all on his own,” Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak said. “He knew that.”
Manning was in that position because Broncos general manager John Elway built a defense good enough to win a Super Bowl if the offense didn’t screw it up.
That’s exactly what happened against the Panthers.
Carolina’s offensive line had no answers for a pass rush that abused quarterback Cam Newton to the tune of six sacks and three turnovers. By the time four minutes remained in the game, Newton didn’t even bother diving into a pile to try to recover his own fumble even though the Panthers were only trailing by six points.
Newton will now have to live with that decision just as Manning did some of his mistakes when losing in past Super Bowls.
The only questions Manning must answer now are about his NFL future.
As much respect as he has earned, nobody expects Manning back with the Broncos in 2016 with the franchise needing to use his salary to help keep his heir apparent (Osweiler) from leaving in free agency. Manning would have interest from other teams as a free agent – ESPN reported the Los Angeles Rams have discussed the possibility of making a run at him – but whether he’s willing to adjust to new surroundings at age 39 knowing his play rapidly declined in 2015 is dubious.
When Manning said during his postgame news conference that he wanted to “celebrate this victory respectfully,” it was a read-between-the-lines statement.
Manning wasn’t going to upstage his teammates and the organizational joy being experienced by shifting the spotlight to him.
Manning also said he didn’t want to make a decision during an emotional period and will “take some time” before making his intentions known.
“I think I’ll make a good decision and be at peace whatever way it goes,” Manning said.
He can rest easy after what transpired in Super Bowl 50.