SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Everyone got spoiled.
Over two decades of watching Peyton Manning play on the biggest stages, fans became numb to all he could do — the way he dissected defences with clinical precision, the way he rewrote the record book, even the way he came back from a neck injury that was supposed to be career-ending.
Hobbled, creaking, sputtering to the end of his 18th season, he became a different quarterback. Not the Alpha Dog who needed to call all the shots. But a 39-year-old game manager who needed others to carry him over the finish line.
And what a finish the 24-10 win over the Carolina Panthers was — if, in fact, this was it.
Not so much because of the 13 completions and 141 yards — that used to be one quarter’s worth for Manning. But because of the Super Bowl title he brought back to Denver — the second of his storied career and the one that proved every last thing he needed to.
"I don’t worry much about Peyton’s legacy," said his dad, Archie, as he leaned against the wall outside the Broncos locker room. "Peyton’s legacy was he was a good quarterback. He showed up and played. A lot of people give him credit for changing things about the game. But there’s nothing wrong with being 2-2 in the Super Bowl instead of 1-3."
About those two losses: They hovered over Manning like a dark cloud. It wasn’t so much that he couldn’t win the big one — he did that in 2007 with the Colts — it was that he didn’t win enough of them. All the passing yards (71,940), all those MVP awards (a record five), all those wins (Sunday’s marked No. 200) should’ve translated into more rings.
Now he has two, and is one of only 12 quarterbacks who can claim multiple Super Bowl titles.
One of the others is John Elway, who took a chance on Manning’s surgically repaired neck in 2012, boldly proclaiming at the time that there was no Plan B in case things didn’t work out.
Manning repaid him by throwing for nearly 15,000 yards over the first three seasons, and taking them to the Super Bowl two years ago. But the Broncos weren’t a complete team, and the best proof came Feb. 2, 2014 against the Seattle Seahawks, who humiliated them from beginning to end, 43-8.
The bolstering of the defence began immediately, but not until halfway through this season did the magnitude of the transformation — of the Broncos and of Manning himself — really sink in.
His post-injury arm strength already a question, it became a glaring liability. He threw an NFL-high 17 interceptions through 8 1/2 games before he finally succumbed to the bench with a torn ligament in his left foot.
"He had to do several things different this year," Archie said. "Had to take off during the season, which he’d never done before. He ran the scout team, which I don’t think he’d ever done, and he dressed out as a backup, which he’d never done."
His comeback began when he entered as a substitute in the last game of the regular season. It continued in the playoffs, where he managed the Broncos to two close-to-the-vest wins against Pittsburgh and New England. It concluded at Super Bowl 50, which served as Exhibit A of how a quarterback who is merely mortal can still make it work.
The stat line, 13 for 23 with an interception and a 56.6 passer rating, is bottom-10 material. Manning got hit, harassed, even fooled into throwing an interception. Some throws were off-target. Others had no zip.
But there was still a very good football brain at work — one that knew the perfect time to shout "Omaha, Omaha," to move out of one play and into another, to get out of harm’s way and let the defence take care of the rest.
"It’s been a unique season and (you’re) probably tired of hearing me saying this, but I really have just tried to take it one week at a time and not take it too far ahead," Manning said.
The next move seems like an easy one.
For the last two weeks, Manning’s been savoring every moment. He brought his two children onto the stage with him after the AFC Championship. He reached out to all of his old coaches, even going back to his Isidore Newman days. He gave an emotional speech to the team Saturday night that some said felt more like a goodbye.
Everything points to this being, as Manning told Patriots coach Bill Belichick, the "last rodeo." But Manning insisted the moments after the Super Bowl were no time to make this decision.
"He’s just probably soaking it in," said Elway, who walked away in 1999 after his second straight title. "You go through so much hard work, and it’s such a long season, that to be able to win a world championship and exhale and say ‘We’re world champs,’ is a great feeling."
What won’t be a great feeling is when Manning queues up the tape of this one to see where he stands. From the standpoint of a perfectionist, about the only watchable moment will be the one at the end, where he’s holding the Lombardi Trophy.
But that didn’t make it a bad day. In fact, it will be remembered as one of his best.
"Peyton’s spoiled us," Archie 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."