Peyton Manning drank all the Budweiser after Super Bowl 50. At least that’s what he told us he was going to do, and why would we want to imagine anything else than old No. 18 getting his postgame – post-career? – party on deep into the NorCal night?
God knows he earned it.
Broncos 24, Panthers 10. But as Manning cracked open another brewski – and perhaps stole another kiss from Papa John – one wonders if he ran back over the game in his mind, riffled through Denver’s forgettable passing plays and his own meager stats, and wished he’d done something more. Manning was largely a bystander during one of the greatest defensive performances in Super Bowl history. Carolina’s vaunted defense played second fiddle to Denver’s, but it forced a pair of Manning turnovers and allowed him no scoring strikes and only 141 yards through the air, the first sub-200-yard total for a Super Bowl-winning quarterback in 10 years.
Was that really good enough for Manning, the most zealous perfectionist of his time?
Probably. Hell, it better have been. Because it’s the only final act Manning will be able to take with him, assuming his spectacular career is over. And it ought to be over. He had so little giddy-up on his fastball at 39 years and 320 days old, it’s terrifying to imagine what might await him should he choose to continue playing. The career numbers – 71,940 yards, 539 touchdowns – shattered records. They are magnificent. Along with two Super Bowl rings, they are more than enough to place Manning near the top of any best-of-all-time discussions.
He is the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl, and the only quarterback to win them as the starter on different NFL teams.
“I’ll take some time to reflect,” he said on the field when asked about his future plans. “I’ve got a couple priorities first. I want to go kiss my wife and my kids. I want to go hug my family.”
Broncos fans surely wanted to ratchet up the party, too, and did. Soon, though, they’ll turn in earnest to the future and a cascade of concerns. The nuttiest of them have already, for Denver needs a quarterback for the 2016 season and Brock Osweiler – who filled in admirably for a month-plus after a gimpy Manning had played the worst football of his career – is a free agent. So are Super Bowl MVP Von Miller and fellow linebackers Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall. So are running backs C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman and stud defensive tackle Malik Jackson. Denver has 25 free agents in all, 19 of them unrestricted and nine of them starters.
And has the bidding started yet for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips? He may not have cut it as a head coach, but give him a greaseboard and a meeting room full of eager bodies, and he’s as valuable to a team as any X’s-and-O’s scribbler in the game.
What Denver’s defense did to the Panthers was utterly shocking. It wrecked seemingly indomitable Carolina quarterback Cam Newton with seven sacks, leaving the league MVP in shambles. Newton collapsed into a shell of his usually über-confident self early – after Miller strip-sacked him and Jackson recovered for a first-quarter touchdown, Newton hung his head low – and from there Manning appeared to be on even footing with a quarterback who was superior to him by every conceivable measure.
Make no mistake about it: Denver’s defense delivered this victory. Miller did it with his strip-sacks that led to both of the Broncos’ touchdowns. DeMarcus Ware did it with his pair of sacks, Trevathan with his machine-like tackling, T.J. Ward with his interception, Bradley Roby with his lockdown coverage. The unit rose to the level of the 1985 Chicago Bears, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, the 2013 Seattle Seahawks. It was a stifling for the ages. It was a biblical beatdown.
Manning? His job was to be a caretaker. To not screw up. To be just one of the “Grinders,” as coach Gary Kubiak calls this team.
“This game was very much like the season has been,” Manning said. “It really tested our toughness, our resilience, our unselfishness. It’s only fitting that it turned out that way. A great bunch of teammates, a great bunch of guys I got to play with. I just feel very, very grateful.”
People will call this the ugliest Super Bowl in a long time, and they should. From an aesthetic point of view, it bordered on the unwatchable. There were turnovers and penalties galore. There were a whopping four third-down conversions in 29 attempts. The two offensive touchdowns covered a total of three yards.
Should we mention that it was all pretty much just what Denver had hoped for? The Broncos led the league in 2015 in total defense. They were tops in sacks and best against the pass. This was nothing if not an accurate reflection of who they were all season.
That includes having an aged caretaker quarterback, whose job was, to put it simply, not to screw up. Yet let’s be real about this, too: Super Bowl 50 will be remembered for a lot of things – Denver’s defense’s dominating play, Newton’s failure, an overall four-hour bummer on the grandest stage in American sports – but what’ll endure most of all is Manning’s winning ride into the sunset.
Maybe that’s undeserved, given his bystander’s view of the action. But it’s an unstoppable reality. Peyton Manning won it all on his way out the door – he has to be done, right? – and enough Buds will make that feel unimaginably glorious.