Peyton Manning, the Sheriff, has an opportunity to do in his sport what most athletes, even the highest caliber ones, only dream of doing: going out in his last season a champion. Somehow, amidst Human Growth Hormone allegations and a partially torn plantar fascia that sidelined him for seven weeks, Manning is going to play in his fourth Superbowl on Feb. 7.
The opponent? Cam Newton and a team that appears to have worked for this very opportunity ever since they were rebuilt around the now fifth-year quarterback.
This game has all the headlines and matchups a football fan could want. Old vs. Young, running quarterback against the best game manager in the games history, number one defense going up against the second-ranked defense, a five-time MVP champion battling this year’s likely MVP.
This is going to be a knockdown, drag-out affair and neither leader is going to come out of it unscathed. The Panthers are the clear favorite going into the matchup and it’s no surprise why.
They come into this game having run rampant on the Arizona Cardinals for the right to be here in the first place and putting up 35 in one half against Seattle the week before that. Denver’s road here, while it went through home, involved a run-heavy performance and a fumble recovery to beat Pittsburgh and one of the greatest pass-rushing performances ever to crush Brady and the Patriots in a classic matchup of two of the great QBs of their era.
The odds are stacked against Peyton; this battle seems a lot more lopsided than when he went up against the Seahawks and Russell Wilson two years ago in New York, where Seattle wiped the floor with him.
Sure it would have been rich for Peyton to get his revenge against Seattle in the Superbowl. Still, one final chance at a second championship is not a bad gig. It is only fitting that in the twilight of his career, he faces one of the best young quarterbacks who looks to be at the top of his game for quite a while.
His stats this year are the worst of his career: nine touchdowns to 17 interceptions, leaving him in a position where he was playing back up for Brock Osweiler going into the regular season finale.
One thing has been clear this season, as sad as it is, Manning’s best days are behind him at this point in his career.
There has been some upswing however. Since coming off the bench to replace Osweiler in that week 17 game, there hasn’t been a single pick (the only turnover has been that challenge play against New England where it was marginal as to being a forward pass or a lateral, ultimately resulting in an official fumble for Peyton).
In addition to this sudden renaissance, last week Peyton doubled the number of touchdowns he had at home all season by throwing a resounding two to Owen Daniels.
The first half of the battle with the Patriots showed us that the legend still has some fight left in him, and it was enough to put the defense in a spot to carry him on to Superbowl 50.
The two defenses in this game will look to make it a low-scoring affair. The Panthers shut down Carson Palmer last week and did enough to beat a dynamic Russell Wilson the week before. The Broncos, as mentioned before, have been the real reason Denver is where it is right now.
It’s only natural that players like Luke Kuechly and Von Miller are going to be featured leading up to this game. But most of the talk is going to be focused on the legend everyone believes is retiring no matter the outcome of this game.
This is a game that Manning can win if he plays at the level he has been playing the past two games. The outstanding play calling is the reason he is still under center while he shows signs of an ability to do much more than throw intermediate passes inside the numbers.
In this game, Manning is going up against the best defense not from Denver and he is going to need to play not only smarter, but better than them to pull out this win.
If Denver is bringing home this Lombardi trophy, the Sheriff needs to pull out all the stops and deliver a performance for the ages, the kind of thing his younger self did on the regular.
Here’s why I’m betting on Denver: this isn’t just Peyton Manning, it’s a grizzled, older Manning who’s been here before and experienced the joys and woes of this game. It’s a Manning who has been through the most traumatic season of his career, battling injury and controversy.
This is an angry Manning with critics to silence and something to prove. But most importantly, this is most likely the last time we will see Number 18 play football, and as soft spoken as he is, Manning is going to make a lot of noise before the curtain comes down.