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LOPRESTI: A fitting finish to a career for the ages

February 8, 2016
Now we know how the fairy tale ends.
           
It is the end, isn’t it? Surely. You could even hear the clock ticking on Peyton Manning above the din of Bruno Mars at halftime of the Super Bowl.
 
By Sunday night, the world had changed so for Manning. He was no longer being asked to win the Super Bowl, just not to lose it. Steady hands and a wise head were all that was required, not 300 passing yards, like the old days in Indianapolis. The Denver defenders could do the heavy lifting.

He wasn’t the leading actor in a championship performance, but rather the guy on stage who gets the biggest cheer for a lifetime achievement award. But when the game was iced, he pumped his fists as if he had just thrown his fifth touchdown pass. The last rodeo was about the bottom line, and nothing else.

And now, presumably, sunset for Manning. Glorious, fulfilling, very nearly perfect. It is time. We know that, and it sometimes seemed from his post-game demeanor and comments that he does, too. The official word should come later, as it did for John Elway, the only other quarterback to ever go out with a Super Bowl championship. But for now, why don’t we just appreciate the dusk of Peyton Manning?
     
Several things came to mind Sunday night.

One was what a winding journey it had been. Here was a man Louisiana born, a college star in Tennessee, a folk hero in Indiana, a hallowed elder statesman of the game in Colorado. And the final scene in California, just up the freeway from Hollywood. At 39, he had come back from injury, just in time to win a Super Bowl. Hollywood, indeed.

Another topic was the memory of all those Sundays in the RCA Dome or Lucas Oil Stadium, Manning having the football in one hand and a big slice of this state’s heart in the other. How many of Peyton’s admirers from those loud years pulled out their old No. 18 Colts jerseys to wear to Super Bowl parties Sunday night.

There was this idle thought: The Colts beat Denver in November, so they have owned regular season wins over the eventual Super Bowl champions in two of the past three years.

And another one. If not for the Manning story line, where on the dull-o-meter would this Super Bowl have ranked?
 
But most striking was the different road Manning’s career has taken as he’s neared the finish line. He grew into a legend by stacking statistics. There were so many touchdown passes, so many yards. And wins. Lots and lots of wins. But while the Super Bowl XLI championship banner will forever hang proudly in Indianapolis, there was also, in truth, a considerable dosage of postseason disappointment.
     
But nobody minded, or doubted his greatness. There was magic in his arm.
 
By Sunday, we knew much of the magic is gone. He would not be shredding any defense. We had not gathered to count his touchdown passes. We had come to see if he could get out of town with a farewell championship. If he could complete the perfect denouement, with the help of his friends.
 
The fact Denver’s offense did not produce a touchdown until the final minutes? Irrelevant. Manning’s pedestrian 13 completions for 141 yards, and a 56.6 passing rating that was one of the lowest in history for a Super Bowl winning quarterback? Fine print.

Once, he would have been asked to carry his team. Now, his team—especially his defense—was asked to tote the load. It was an alternate universe from so much of his career, but it all worked out. Manning said afterward the beer for the celebration Sunday night would be on Von Miller, as Super Bowl MVP. So a linebacker is buying now, instead of the quarterback? It was a joke, but it was telling in its way, too.
 
“We won the Super Bowl. All the rules are changing,” Miller said in his postgame press conference. And the concept of the defense leading the way? “As human beings, we’re selfish, but when you’re doing something for somebody else, that’s when the magic happens. It wasn’t just for Peyton. We’ve got a long list of guys that have been deserving.”
 
Manning had fought tears during his talk to the team Saturday night. He said Sunday he will sort out his decision in the coming days and weeks. He will say thanks to all those who need to be told, and that includes a prayer or two. Not that Sunday night would have been any time for a retirement announcement, anyway. The Broncos defense needed to get the spotlight. But several old Manning business items were taken care of.
 
No, he will never have to hear again how he only won one Super Bowl. Which is like saying a person has had only one winning Powerball ticket. There is something about multiple rings that kills tired questions.
 
Yes, he has matched brother Eli’s two titles. No, this was not to be the coronation of the new Jedi warrior, Cam Newton, but a going-away party for the Yoda of quarterbacks.
 
Yes, turns out he hit the jackpot back in 2012 when he chose the Broncos. This was why he went to Denver.
 
And finally, no, the ending was not absolutely perfect. Not from the Indiana view. He was supposed to be wearing blue when he held his last Lombardi trophy. But it was impossible not to feel good for a man who came to fame by being a passing machine, but bowtied his legacy at the end by being a champion. Not many get to say that. Peyton Manning has been lucky to have this chance to walk away on top. But then, he deserved to be.
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