EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The talk, at least before the Denver Broncos took a team vote and decided not to show up for the game, was that Peyton Manning might call it a career and ride off into the sunset after winning his second Super Bowl ring.
After as miserable a performance as you will ever see on a big stage by a future Hall of Famer, the Broncos might be excused if they just don’t invite him back.
They will, of course, because Manning can still put up big numbers and win more games than the average quarterback. He actually set a Super Bowl record Sunday night by completing 34 passes, though the vast majority were meaningless short throws that the Seattle Seahawks were more than happy to give him in a 43-8 blowout.
But after a second Super Bowl flop where the 37-year-old seemed to be aging by the minute, it may be that Manning is destined to forever be among a large group of quarterbacks who win the big one only once.
Yes, he had plenty of help from teammates who couldn’t hold onto the ball and others who seemed to forget how to tackle.
Yes, the Seahawks have a suffocating defense filled with players who like to hit and strut and then do it all over again.
But it was Manning and center Manny Ramirez who set the tone with a miscommunication for the ages on the opening play from scrimmage. And it was Manning who threw two first half interceptions that gave the opportunistic Seahawks a lead they weren’t about to give up.
One of the greatest quarterbacks ever? Not this night, when Manning seemed jittery and unprepared against a Seahawks defense eager to stake a claim to greatness of their own.
He wasn’t even the greatest in the Broncos locker room afterward, where John Elway stood against a wall and tried to give an explanation about something he couldn’t explain.
“You gotta play well in this game,” Elway said. “Gotta play well to win.”
That Manning didn’t even come close was a shocker, after a season where he set NFL records with 55 touchdown passes and 5,447 yards while leading the league’s top-ranked offense. He failed to become the first quarterback to win Super Bowls with two different teams, and is 11-12 in playoff games.
Tom Brady has lost a few of these, but he never completely gave them away. Joe Montana wouldn’t have even dreamed of it.
Heck, it’s hard to even imagine the other Manning sibling — who owns two rings of his own — losing like this.
“To finish this way is very disappointing,” Manning said. “It’s a bitter pill to swallow.”
That Manning was even playing at the end of the game is testament to his stubbornness, if nothing else. His night should have ended on the previous Denver possession, when he was hit while throwing and fumbled the ball away for his third turnover of the game.
Maybe he just wanted to end with one good pass, and he did. After hitting reserve back C.J. Anderson on a throw across the middle for 14 yards, he settled for handing the ball off as the final seconds ticked off.
Afterward, he dressed slowly in front of his locker, putting a knot in his tie and slipping on his suit coat. Then he trudged off, head down and hands in pocket, to the interview tent where he knew the questions ahead.
The play that sent the game into a tailspin was blamed on crowd noise, though Manning has played in far noisier places than a MetLife stadium that was filled with 82,529 people with divided loyalties. Manning said he was moving forward to change the cadence when Ramirez snapped the football past him and running back Knowshon Moreno fell on it for a safety that was the fastest score in Super Bowl history.
“It’s not the way you want to start a game,” he said. “For whatever reason we couldn’t get anything going after that.”
Someone then asked Manning if the Broncos were embarrassed by a blowout in a game they had entered as slight favorites.
“It’s not embarrassing at all, I would never use that word,” he said. “The word embarrassing is an insulting word, to tell you the truth.”
With that, Manning was gone, with as nifty of an escape as he had made all night. He had said he had a lot to think about during the offseason, and it was time for the thinking to begin.
He will be back, unless doctors who treat his neck say otherwise.
But it’s hard to imagine how next season will end any better than this one did.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg.