Peyton Manning has delivered another magical season in a likely Hall of Fame career.
To put a cherry on top, he'll try on Sunday to become the first starting quarterback to win championships with two franchises in the Super Bowl era.
It's been an arduous journey with all of the upheaval in the five-time MVP's life the past three years: The neck surgeries. The switch from Indianapolis, where he won a title after the 2006 season, to Denver in 2012. Last season's crushing playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
But the road gets tougher for No. 18, who threw for a record 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns this season:
» Manning has a so-so playoff history: 11-11 entering this game and the one championship in his 12 previous postseasons. And eight one-and-dones.
» He's struggled in the cold: 4-7 in games that are below freezing at kickoff; it could be that cold sometime Sunday in East Rutherford, N.J.
» He's facing the Seattle defense, one of the toughest he'll see in his 16-year career.
» And the factor that might trump all the rest: Father Time.
Manning is 37 years old. there have been only five Super Bowls won by passers 35 or older:
» You have to go back to Denver's John Elway, who won after the 1997 and 1998 seasons, to find a quarterback who fits that description. Elway was 38 when he completed his double by leading a victory over Atlanta. He's the oldest champ in the Super Bowl era.
» You can give the decision in Super Bowl V after the 1970 season to one of two graybeards: Johnny Unitas, 37, or Earl Morrall, 36. Unitas started, threw a touchdown pass and was injured in the second quarter of the Baltimore Colts' victory over Dallas. But the Colts trailed at halftime, then rallied behind Morrall.
» Jim Plunkett won two titles, including Super Bowl XVIII at age 36 when the 1983 Los Angeles Raiders defeated Washington.
» Roger Staubach was 35 when he directed the 1977 Cowboys past 34-year-old Craig Morton and Denver in Super Bowl XII.
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GAME OF THE AGES
The matchup between Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson is the biggest age differential between starting QBs in Super Bowl history. For goodness sakes, Wilson was 9 years old when Manning was drafted in 1998. But Super Bowl-champion quarterbacks span from young to old, outspoken to reserved and average to legendary. So don't think the difference in years takes away from the chance of this being a game for the ages.
— Cameron Carlow and John Rodino
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STORYLINES TO WATCH
The Super Bowl has been played before in poor conditions — the downpour of Super Bowl XLI, when Peyton Manning's Colts beat the Bears; the chilly, rainy afternoon at Tulane Stadium in Super Bowl IX — but this game will be played in the flat-cold, winter weather. And since MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., features the occasional swirling winds, conditions should help, ever so slightly, the defenses. Although forecasts currently call for clear skies and 36 degrees at kickoff, it's weather, bound by no NFL commissioner. The better the conditions, the more it favors Denver's precision passing offense. That said, Seattle and Denver know how to play in chilly weather, and prior to the Super Bowl, the NFL championship was often played in poor weather. It's football. These are pros. They'll find a way to adjust.
In the playoffs, Manning flipped Denver's offense from a fast-paced, breakneck bunch to one that could protect its defense by possessing the ball for more plays and more clock time. Seattle's ground game can chew its own share of clock, too. Thus, watch early possessions in the game. If the Seahawks can hold the Broncos to field goals but string together two long touchdown drives together, Denver may be forced into its up-tempo pace without a choice. And it's in that setting — when Manning's not using his running game as an off-speed pitch to the passing game — that Seattle could create turnovers. Should the Seahawks spot the Broncos a good lead — as San Diego and New England did in the AFC playoffs — it puts Russell Wilson in a spot of producing. And Wilson, while growing as a quarterback, firmly remains the underdog as a signal-caller.
Manning and crosstown traffic
The way Manning operates can render blitzes obsolete; the ball's out of his hand so quickly that it doesn't matter whether a defense uses three, four, five or six men to blitz him. But Manning gets the ball out so quick because the Broncos have designed an offense that utilizes quick crossing routes and features “rubs” — wide receivers running routes that narrowly miss each other to cause traffic in coverage — that help guys like Wes Welker, Julius Thomas, Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas get open. The Seahawks may have the game's best corner in Richard Sherman, but the Broncos aren't necessarily going to test Sherman's ability to leap and defend long passes. (If they do, bad idea.) Denver's going to make Sherman and the rest of Seattle's secondary run and run and run and run to keep up with the Broncos' shorter routes. If the Seahawks can do that, Manning's arm strength isn't there to gun the ball to receivers running deep post-corner patterns all night in the cold.
The Super Bowl has long made heroes out of running backs great and average. Marcus Allen. John Riggins. The Smiths — Emmitt and Timmy. Larry Csonka. Willie Parker. Terrell Davis. Pete Banaszak. Marshawn Lynch — Seattle's big, relentless running back — has a chance to take over this game. Denver's run defense runs hot and cold. The Broncos may be wary of Wilson's play-action game and big arm. So Lynch should get his touches and a chance to bull his way to 100 yards. But against a stacked box, Lynch is one of those special runners who can tear his way through five tacklers and bust off a 60-yard run. Runs like that leave a big psychological scar on a defense.
— Sam McKewon