There's an aging quarterback in a Broncos uniform who potentially could finish his career on top by winning what could be his final game, a Super Bowl.
Yes, Peyton Manning -- who, at age 39, will be the oldest starting quarterback in Super Bowl history when he takes the field for Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., against the Carolina Panthers -- likely is trying to do just that. Manning won't confirm that Sunday will be his last game. But it sure feels that way.
Manning isn't the first quarterback in Bronco history to try and do this, and that's no coincidence.
His boss, John Elway, the Broncos' general manager and executive vice president of football operations, brought Manning to Denver in 2012. When he convinced Manning to play for the Broncos, Elway, promised the likely future NFL Hall of Famer that he would do everything in his power to help him finish his career in the way he finished his.
Now, it's Manning's turn.
Could history repeat itself?
On Jan. 31, 1999, in Super Bowl XXXIII, Elway, then 38, earned Super Bowl Most Valuable Player honors for guiding the Broncos to victory over the Atlanta Falcons. At the time, Elway was the oldest quarterback in Super Bowl history, and he rode off into retirement with his second championship.
The same scenario could play out on Sunday with Manning winning his second ring -- the first coming with the Indianapolis Colts. Should he win Super Bowl 50, Manning would become the first quarterback to win Super Bowls with more than one team.
"(Manning) doesn't need to worry or think about retirement now," Elway said earlier this week. "He's worked too hard to get where he is now. There's no sense in talking about whether he's going to end it now or not. He has plenty of time in the offseason to reminisce and look back. His key thing is to concentrate and stay in the moment. This is what he worked for."
Broncos coach Gary Kubiak once was Elway's backup quarterback, and he recognizes Manning's opportunity.
"I think that is special," Kubiak said. "It doesn't happen for just everybody. It's hard enough to get to this game, and when guys have an opportunity to go out that way, looking back at John's situation when we played Atlanta the second time... that was very special."
Cam Newton 'could play any position in the NFL'
Standing between Manning and history are the Panthers, and quarterback Cam Newton, 26, is the NFL's next big superstar.
In many ways, this feels like one era is ending and another is beginning. It is the largest age gap in Super Bowl history between the starting quarterbacks and the first Super Bowl pitting quarterbacks who were No. 1 overall NFL draft picks, Manning in 1998 and Newton in 2011.
Manning is a classic pocket passer. Newton, meanwhile, is redefining the position with his size, power, arm and speed. "Super Cam" has become a superstar this season, scoring touchdowns with his arm and his legs, at times doing front flips into the end zone.
In the NFC Championship Game, a 49-15 win against the Arizona Cardinals, Newton passed for 335 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed for two more.
"How many 6-6 quarterbacks do you see like him that are 260 that run like he does and throws like he does?" Panthers coach Ron Rivera asked rhetorically. "He's different."
Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib called Newton "super unique" and said he "could play any position in the NFL that [he] wanted to."
"He's definitely a unique player," Talib said. "He's probably the most dangerous quarterback in the NFL right now."
Newton has been in the league for five years, but this has been his breakout season. He is the first player in NFL history with at least 30 passing touchdowns and 10 rushing scores in a single season. No one has ever had more combined rushing and passing yards in his first five seasons.
After the Panthers won the NFC Championship Game, Newton was asked to reflect on that five-year journey.
"Long time it feels like, but yet we've still got a long way to go," Newton said. "I'm excited.
"I said it then, and I'll say it now: It was a process. It wasn't going to be -- what did I say -- instant grits, quick grits. It was going to be a process like long-cooked collard greens. I think those collard greens are brewing right now. You can smell it from a mile away."
Newton has led a Panthers offense that scored 31.3 points per game in the regular season, tops in the NFL. In their two postseason games, the Panthers are averaging 40 points per game.
The Broncos defense -- which led the NFL in total defense, pass defense and sacks in the regular season -- has a huge task on its hands in containing Newton.
"It's amazing," Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. "He's a special talent, a rare talent."
"This league has the best of everything. I mean, you look at some of the great throwers in this league ... and then now you got a guy who's got a combination of everything. Not only beating people with his arm but with his feet, his ability to move around. He's also doing a lot of things on the line of scrimmage, which is very impressive to us as we prepare to play him. They've given him a lot of freedom. ... He is a top-notch drop-back quarterback, but he can run with it better than the rest of them."
With a Super Bowl ring, Newton would have the "grand slam" of college football and NFL hardware: the Heisman, a national championship, an NFL MVP award (he won the award Saturday night) and a Super Bowl ring. The only other player to accomplish all those feats was Marcus Allen, who played for the University of Southern California and the Los Angeles Raiders.
There's another sign that times have changed. African-American quarterbacks will have started in four consecutive Super Bowls once Newton takes the field (Russell Wilson of Seattle in the last two and Colin Kaepernick of San Francisco).
Newton: This game is bigger than black, white
That being said, Newton is tired of talking about race.
He sparked a debate last week when he was asked why he thinks he's become more of a lightning rod than other athletes. Newton didn't mince words.
"I'm an African-American quarterback. That may scare a lot of people because they haven't seen nothing that they can compare me to," Newton said.
Predictably, the subject came up again in the Bay Area.
"What do you want your legacy to be as a black quarterback?" a reporter asked him on Tuesday.
This time, Newton's take was different.
"I don't even want to touch on the topic of black quarterback, because I think this game is bigger than black, white or even green," he said. "So I think we limit ourselves when we just label ourselves just black, this, that and the third. I wanted to bring awareness because of that, but yet I don't think I should be labeled just a black quarterback, because it's bigger things in this sport that need to be accomplished."
A different reporter Tuesday had borderline adversarial questions about stereotypes of black quarterbacks.
"It's not an issue," Newton replied emphatically. "It's an issue for you."
His trajectory has been upward since a car accident in December 2014. In that time the Panthers have won 20 of 22 games. This isn't a fad; Newton isn't going anywhere. This is just the beginning, and Manning knows it.
"What he's done in the short time being an NFL quarterback, he's been awesome," Manning said. "It's the best word I can think of. He's been a great passer, he's been a great runner, he's been a great leader. You don't go 17-1 as a starting quarterback without being awesome, and that's what he's been this year without a doubt."
Manning; 'This might be my last rodeo'
While "Superman" is still on the rise, time is running short for "the Sheriff."
Retirement likely isn't far from Manning's mind. After Denver's win over New England, NFL Films picked up the audio of Manning telling Patriots coach Bill Belichick at midfield, "This might be my last rodeo."
A few days later, Manning joked about the exchange, but he didn't dispel any retirement talk, either.
"What happened to private conversations on the 50-yard-line?" Manning told the media with the hint of a smile. "I guess they just don't exist anymore. No confirmation on that whatsoever. We are on to Carolina."
Manning reaffirmed that after arriving in the Bay Area.
"Yeah, I haven't made up my mind, but I don't see myself knowing that until after the season," said Manning, who turns 40 next month. "Whatever cliché you want to use, but I kind of stay in the moment and focus on the task at hand and just deal with this week. That's what I've done all season."
According to NFL.com and NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, Manning has told close friends that he expects Sunday to be his final game. However, Manning's family members have previously said they don't know one way or the other.
"He's not said anything to me about it," said brother and New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. "I don't know if it is [his last game], but because of that possibility, I hope that he can win this game and if he decides to hang it up, go out on top."
Dad Archie Manning, a former NFL quarterback himself, said Peyton's 18-year "rodeo" has been a good one, but echoing Eli, he said, "I promise you he hasn't talked about [retirement]. Has not even brought it up."
It's the same with his Denver teammates. They say they don't know what he'll do.
Elway said it's unlikely Manning is thinking beyond Sunday, "that the bottom line is that he's trying to concentrate on winning a world championship, because that's what it's all about."
"That's what he's worked for this whole season and throughout his career ... so anytime we get a chance to compete for a world championship, you want your full concentration on that. Peyton has been through it enough, so that's what he's thinking about."
Manning is the NFL's No.1 all-time passer in yards (71,940) and touchdowns (509), but his numbers this season weren't nearly as gaudy as they used to be. He threw only nine TD passes and 17 interceptions during the regular season, six games of which he missed with a partially torn plantar fascia in his left foot.
But Manning's mind is as sharp as ever, and he showed in the AFC Championship Game that he has something left physically, throwing two touchdown passes. Before that game, he had only thrown for one score at Sports Authority Field at Mile High all season.
"I want to win for Peyton," Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall said. "I love this team and he deserves it. I know everybody uses the term 'ride off into the sunset.' I want to see that happen."
No sentimental feelings from the Panthers
Pardon the Panthers for not being nostalgic about Manning's situation.
"We don't really care if this is his last game," Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert said, according to the Charlotte Observer. "He's played what -- 18, 19 years? He's had enough, you know what I'm saying? It's our turn."
Carolina safety Tre Boston agreed and added his own analogy.
"So if a man has the last piece of pizza in the world, are you going to take that last piece?" Boston asked. "One of y'all got to live. One of us has to win, and I'm not trying to lose. It's you and that one man. You gonna live or not? I'm trying to win. I don't care who you are."
Panthers cornerback Josh Norman said it would be "huge" to beat a legend like Manning, and to get an interception "would be everything I've worked for," and if it happens, "I'll just do my best and try to contain myself and not get a personal foul because I'll probably get so excited, I might do something stupid."
Does the Panthers coach think a lot of America will be rooting for Manning?
"Probably," Rivera told the Observer. "Which is fine. ... It's one of those things that you've most certainly got to respect and you do pay attention to. I'm kind of hoping there are a whole bunch of Panthers fans and [rival Oakland] Raiders fans who are thinking otherwise, though."
Elway: Manning's legacy is set
Manning ranks second in playoff history in passing yards (7,022), completions (619) and attempts (972), trailing only New England's Tom Brady. He also ranks fourth all-time in postseason touchdown passes with 40, but he's only got one Super Bowl ring, and a loss Sunday would be his third time coming up short.
But Elway -- who was part of three Super Bowl-losing teams himself -- said the Sheriff's Super Bowl win-loss record won't be what defines him.
"This is not a make-or-break game for Peyton," Elway said. "His legacy is already set. He's already going to go down as one of the greatest players to ever play the game, so if anything this will do is just add to that legacy."