SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — The best thing for Peyton Manning is that he won the Super Bowl.
A close second: He never has to lace 'em up again.
Constantly harassed, never quite comfortable — sort of the way the whole season has played out — Manning walked away with his second Super Bowl title Sunday night, after Denver's defense all but handed him the Lombardi Trophy in a 24-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers.
A towel draped over his shoulder, his freshly printed championship hat on his head, Manning wouldn't budge on whether this was, in fact, his last game.
"I got some good advice from Tony Dungy," Manning said of the first of four coaches with whom he's been to the Super Bowl. "He said, 'Don't make an emotional decision.' This has been an emotional week, an emotional night. I'm going to take some time to reflect."
If part of the decision involves a peek back at this game, he won't like anything he sees, except the final score.
He was creaky, off-target at times. He got bamboozled into his first interception of this year's playoffs and could've thrown a few more if Panthers' defenders had better hands. Manning lost a fumble, as well.
His most important throw? Might have been the pass that flew 10 yards out of the end zone but drew a defensive holding call that set up the game-clinching touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Manning completed 13 passes for 141 yards and got the Broncos moving to start both halves.
That was plenty. Those small wisps of offense set up a few field goals, kept the Broncos in good field position — then allowed No. 18 and Co. to clear the way for a smothering, historically good defense that won the game with seven sacks and four turnovers.
Manning became the first quarterback to win the Super Bowl with two franchises. He joined his brother, Eli, and 10 other quarterbacks as multiple Super Bowl winners. He's been taking it week by week this year, insisting he's not thinking about what he'll do after the season. Now that it's over, he'll have to decide whether he wants to walk away on top — same as his boss, John Elway, did after he won his second title back in 1999.
After his final win, Elway took some time to reflect and admitted to himself that he couldn't grind another year.
Smart money has Manning making the same choice, and his father, Archie, suggested his kid's days in Denver are all but done.
"I want to hear his side of it first," Archie said, while standing against a wall outside the Broncos locker room. "I've got some ideas. I would never tell Peyton what to do. I'll lay some things out for him. He knows what to consider. If he wants to play some more football, he's going have to go to another team. He's going to be 40. But we have not talked about it."
Manning is technically under contract with the Broncos for one more season, though everything they've done over the past year — fire John Fox, hire Gary Kubiak and Wade Phillips, revamp the offense — has spoken to a desire to build a winner that will last beyond Manning's tenure in Denver.
Which could be ending shortly.
Manning spoke to the team Saturday night — an emotional talk that defensive lineman Derek Wolfe called the "most intense" speech he'd ever been part of.
"I kind of thanked them for letting me be a part of the journey," Manning said.
It had the makings of a farewell.
The quarterback rewrote the record book his first three years in Denver, then remade himself in Year 4. He threw 17 interceptions, missed six games with an injured foot, suited up as a backup, and finally, came back as a diminished game manager.
But he didn't shirk from that role.
He won with a Super Bowl passer rating of 56.6 that, unbelievably, wasn't that much lower than what he compiled this season.
He won by handing off a lot. The Broncos ran 28 times Sunday, including on third-and-9 late in this game while nursing a lead. That never would have happened in earlier in his 18-year career. Denver's 11 first downs were the same as Manning would've racked up in a quarter a few years back.
"We couldn't move it, couldn't run it," Archie Manning said. "I got so tired of hearing 'No gain.' They said it a hundred times."
A game like this that would normally send Peyton scurrying to the film room, trying to figure out how to make things better for next week.
Next week doesn't matter. Next year might not either.
"Peyton's spoiled us," his father said. "The season was hard. So different. But that's what life is, and football has many similarities. It's dealing with adversity. That's what life's about."
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