SUPER BOWL 50
SANTA CLARA, California (AP):
It's the perfect scenario, a Hollywood-type script: Peyton Manning emulates John Elway and rides off into the sunset with the Super Bowl trophy in his grip.
Will it happen?
For Manning to take the Denver Broncos to their first NFL title tomorrow since the team's current general manager, Elway, did in 1999 before retiring, seems the sentimental choice.
Like Elway, Manning has had a taste of losing in the big game, going 1-2. He won a championship with the Indianapolis Colts in 2007, lost with the Colts in 2010, and lost again with the Broncos in 2014.
Elway dropped his first three Super Bowls, then won his final two. Manning is the only five-time Most Valuable Player in NFL history, one of the faces of the league and, at 39, the oldest starting quarterback to lead a team in the Super Bowl.
Slowed by age and injury, he is no longer the record-breaking passer he once was. He's still as good as anyone at diagnosing defences and changing things up - or appearing to, anyway - at the line of scrimmage. But Manning is not quite as capable as he was when it comes to putting the football exactly where he wants it, especially on deep routes.
He's had difficult recent seasons, missing 2011 entirely because of neck surgeries, then struggling in last year's playoffs.
This season, the bad far outweighed the good, including 17 interceptions to only nine touchdown passes in the regular season, missing six games with injuries, getting relegated to backup duty in the NFL for the first time, and vehemently denying a report linking his wife to banned human growth hormone.
"My role has been different and my contributions are different," Manning says. "But I'm fortunate and grateful that I have the opportunity to contribute still, in some way. And it's a great honour to be going back to the Super Bowl."
Receiver Demaryius Thomas can envision the proper ending to this drama for Denver."It's amazing to play for Peyton," Thomas says. "He's one of the best to have ever done it, a future Hall of Famer, and he has done so much for me. I'm excited about it, and hopefully we can get this win, and if he decides to retire then he can go out with a bang."
Standing in their way, though, is simply the best team in the league.The Carolina Panthers have the most prolific offence, and a big-play defence. That defence doesn't match the stats of the Broncos, who ranked first overall, but it's just as impactful.
The offence is led by Cam Newton who, as opposed to Manning, is getting his career going, is just 26, and making his debut in the big game.
He also is expected to earn league MVP honours for the first time, part of a new breed of dual-threat quarterbacks as good at running as they are at throwing.
"I sound like a broken record, but yet for a dream to play out as it has through the ups and downs, it just means the world for us to get what you prepare for," says Newton, finishing off his fifth and, by far, best pro season.
Carolina are favourites to become only the third team to go 18-1 for the season and win the Super Bowl.
Both defences will have their moments. Denver's is just too good to be dominated for very long, producing a dynamic pass rush led by Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, and with superb coverage backs.
Carolina's Luke Kuechly, Josh Norman, Thomas Davis (ready to play after surgery last week on a broken right arm) and Kawann Short are game-changers.
Carolina are far more likely to find balance on their offence; Jonathan Stewart is the best running back on either roster, and Newton's power and breakaway ability toting the ball are unmatched for the quarterback position.
One area the Panthers are superior, perhaps vastly so, is on the offensive line.
So the Broncos' relentless pursuit of the quarterback may not be as fruitful as it was against New England's Tom Brady in the AFC Championship game.
It all adds up to Cam and Company spoiling another Super Bowl for the Broncos, leaving Manning to ponder if he wants to leave the NFL after losing his final game.