Amid the countless other questions that always surround the two Super Bowl teams, there have been a lot of questions swirling about whether this Super Bowl will be the swan song for legendary Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. Some of the them have concerned his age, and some have been regarding his limited play this season and his physical ability to continue to play, as he has shown signs of being hampered by both injuries and age. The most persistent questions, however, have concerned Manning’s advanced age for a professional football player, and whether this Super Bowl game will be the last in the legendary quarterback’s illustrious career. Manning may walk away from the NFL after this; particularly if the opportunity arises for him to do so as a champion once again.
Manning has his work cut out for him, as he and the Broncos will face a very tough Carolina Panthers team, which managed to become only the seventh team in NFL history to finish the 16-game regular season with a record of 15-1 or better. They survived the NFC playoffs to make it all the way to the Super Bowl, which is the fourth time that one of these teams that have flirted with the highly prestigious perfect season managed to reach the big game. The 1984 San Francisco 49ers were the first 15-1 team to reach the Super Bowl, and they beat the Miami Dolphins soundly. The following year, the Chicago Bears completed what is considered by many to be the most dominant single season in NFL history by crushing the New England Patriots in the big game. Most recently, the New England Patriots managed to survive with a perfect record all the way to the Super Bowl, only to lose in a shocking manner in the final minute of the game, spoiling their bid at perfection and sports immortality.
Carolina opened as clear favorites to beat Denver and hoist what would be the franchise’s first-ever Vince Lombardi Trophy. The Panthers did manage to reach the Super Bowl once before, however. In the 2003 season, the Panthers enjoyed success in the regular season by finishing 11-5 and winning the NFC South, earning the third seed in the NFC playoffs. It was in the playoffs that they really caught fire, soundly beating the Dallas Cowboys in the wild card round, then shocking the Rams in St. Louis in an overtime classic before dominating the Eagles in Philadelphia to reach the Super Bowl. Once there, they met the New England Patriots, and the two teams played one of the most memorable Super Bowls ever, with an electrifying fourth quarter that netted a combined 37 points from both teams. In the end, however, New England’s Adam Vinatieri kicked a field goal with mere seconds left to break a tie game and give the Patriots a 32-29 victory.
While the Panthers have made it to the Super Bowl only once before in their history, the Broncos are no strangers to the big game. They first made it in the 1977 season, qualifying for Super Bowl XII, but losing big to Dallas. In the 1980s, the Broncos qualified for the Super Bowl three times in a four-year span but lost by ever wider margins each time, earning the franchise the reputation of not being able to win the big one. That changed in the 1990s, however, as the Broncos managed to win back-to-back Super Bowl titles in 1997 and 1998. The first of those was a memorable quarterback duel between John Elway and Green Bay’s Brett Favre, and the Broncos were able to shock the heavily favored Packers on that day. Finally, two seasons ago, Denver took a record-setting offense that became the first in NFL history to produce 600 points in the regular season to the Super Bowl. Once there, however, Seattle’s bruising defense completely dominated and blew the Broncos out 43-8.
Manning himself has some Super Bowl experience with his former team, the Indianapolis Colts, as well. After years of waiting and coming close, the Colts finally broke through in 2006, reaching Super Bowl XLI. Once there, Manning had a solid game and helped the Colts defeat the Chicago Bears, with Manning earning Super Bowl MVP honors. Three years later, the Colts would return, but it was a much less happy occasion for them in Super Bowl XLIV. Indianapolis looked sharp early and took a 10-0 lead, but the New Orleans Saints fought back. In the final quarter, the Saints were able to take a 24-17 lead late in the game, and Manning and the Colts needed a touchdown to stay in the game. However, he threw an interception to Tracy Porter, who returned it all the way for a touchdown that essentially iced the game for New Orleans. Despite Manning’s record numbers and being awarded the prestigious league MVP honors a record five times during his prolific career, many of his critics suggest that these records are diminished by his lack of success in the postseason. That reputation is why this particular Super Bowl is so important to Manning because it could allow him to author the ideal ending to his storied career, but only if he helps his team win the biggest game of his career.
The Denver Broncos returned to the Super Bowl this season without the kind of record-setting offense they had two years ago. Instead, they have come to rely much more heavily on an aggressive defense, which carried them for much of the season. While Denver’s offense has struggled this season, which included a long stretch when Manning was absent due to injury, the defense managed to step up and become an elite unit, finishing as the top-ranked defense in the league. It was this defense that kept a dangerous Pittsburgh offense in check in the divisional round, and then just barely managed to hold off the explosive New England Patriots in the AFC title game in order to reach this Super Bowl.
Manning and the Broncos clearly would like to erase the memory of the bad loss a couple of years ago, and they certainly will need that defense to keep Cam Newton and the Panthers offense in check. Newton adds an element of unpredictability and danger with both his accurate arm and his running abilities, which makes him a double threat. As such, he should pose a strong challenge to that tough Denver defense.
On the offensive end, Manning will also need to perform his duties better than he did in the Super Bowl two years ago, when the Broncos stumbled and fumbled their way early on, allowing Seattle to build a 36-0 lead before the Broncos offense really began to get into a groove. Denver cannot allow Carolina to build a big lead in this game, as the Seahawks and the Cardinals found out in the NFC playoffs. Seattle actually had a strong rally to get back into the game after giving the Panthers a 31-0 lead, but it was just too much of a lead to overcome in the end.
Every little bit will help if the Broncos hope to defeat the Panthers. Perhaps that is why, as the home team, they uncharacteristically elected to wear their white uniforms, which is a relatively rare thing for the designated home team in Super Bowls. Only Dallas (Super Bowls XIII and XXVII), Washington (Super Bowl XVII), and Pittsburgh (XL) have elected to wear their white jerseys, which are usually worn by the road teams in the NFL. In those games, the only loss was by the Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII. Historically, the teams wearing their white jerseys have won a clear majority of Super Bowls, having won 31 out of the 49 big games, including 10 out of the last 11 Super Bowls. Perhaps, the Broncos are showing a superstitious side by wearing the color of jersey that has enjoyed far more success than any other in the big game.
If Manning is to end his career and ride off into the sunset the way he would like to, it surely would require the Broncos capturing the franchise’s third-ever Super Bowl title. He could walk away if Denver loses, as most experts agree this is surely the last chance for the Broncos with Manning at the helm. There has been speculation that he might return as a quarterback for a team that only lacks a solid quarterback. However, Manning is not getting any younger and has deflected all direct questions about whether or not he is ready to step away from the game. He will turn 40 less than two months after Super Bowl 50 is played, which is longer than most active quarterbacks tend to play. If this is it for Manning, there is no better way to walk away from the game that he loved and helped shape than to ride off into the sunset with his second Super Bowl championship ring.
Commentary by Charles Bordeau
Edited by Leigh Haugh
The Denver Post: Peyton Manning eager to help boost Broncos offense
ESPN: ‘One-sided’ action on Panthers helps move Super Bowl 50 line
NESN: Broncos Wearing White Jerseys, Will Be Home Team In Super Bowl 50
Image Courtesy of Craig Hawkins’ Flickr Page – Creative Commons License