Is Peyton Manning Now the Greatest of All-Time?

Make no mistake: before last night’s Super Bowl kicked off, the Denver Post had a couple of front pages mocked up to roll out for the early edition Monday. The one we saw being held up proudly on the field, with the loud “World Champs” header, was probably safely on its way to the presses by midway through the third quarter. But, much like the “2016 Super Bowl Champion Carolina Panthers” hats and t-shirts currently being shipped overseas, there was undoubtedly another headline that will never see the light of day.

That never-published front page feature would have likely told the story of how a much faster, younger quarterback failed to buckle under the pressure of the biggest game of his career and capped off an almost-perfect season with yet another resounding, high-scoring playoff performance.

Boy, did that not happen.

By halftime, rather than scratching their head over why football fans were being treated to Bruno Mars for the second time in three Super Bowls, some hopeful Denver Post reporter was probably doing a fair bit of rearranging to that Cam Newton-centric game recap. Perhaps Carolina would still come back and win, redeeming this body of text he or she had composed.

“The Carolina Panthers had never trailed at any point in their previous two playoff games versus Seattle and Arizona,” that phantom, never-to-be-completed draft might have read, “but Newton, the undisputed MVP of Super Bowl 50, showed terrific resilience, putting the team on his back in the second half and speeding his way to an end zone dab-fest the likes of which the people of Santa Clara, Calif. had never seen before.”

But that’s not the kind of Super Bowl it was. By the time the Panthers had blown a field goal wide right, and coach Ron Rivera could do nothing more than sit on his hands as Denver cornerback Aqib Talib stormed across the line of scrimmage ahead of the play, that writer must have begun to suspect that article was going to wind up atop the stack of other unwritten stories in the great rubbish bin in the sky.

Still though, at 16-7 and then 16-10, the outcome of Super Bowl 50 was up in the air — in large part because the defensive players on both squads were so often up in the air themselves, picking off errant passes and colliding headlong into defenseless quarterbacks. Not a single touchdown pass was thrown; the closest we got was a Peyton Manning two-point conversion.

Manning, 39, the oldest quarterback to ever start a Super Bowl, became the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl. It was his second ring, also making him the first pivot to win it all with two different teams. But he was not last night’s MVP; something that may well be forgotten by historians too gleeful about The Sheriff’s career-vindicating second Super Bowl. The fact is, he threw for just 141 yards, committing two turnovers. Behind actual MVP recipient Von Miller — who forced two fumbles, hit Newton with 2.5 sacks for 27 yards, and made five tackles and one assist —  the runner-up was undoubtedly Broncos kicker Brandon McManus. McManus chipped in three field goals and one point-after in a very efficient but sure-to-be-overlooked day’s work.

Heading into Super Bowl 50, the world seemed ready to anoint Newton as preeminent among a new generation of quarterbacks. But, for this year at least, those blog posts and think pieces remain relegated to the draft folder. And while the numbers Sunday may not exactly bear it out, and this 2016 postseason may not have had quite the same shine as the run he put together back in 2007, it’s time instead to blow the dust off another narrative: “Peyton Manning: Greatest Of All Time.”

It’s a story that was picking up steam around Halloween last year as Denver pulled out to a 7-0 start to the 2015 season. Here’s a guy who’s a five-time MVP, in his 18th season, still putting up W’s. But, if you had offered it up in earnest following Denver’s Nov. 15 loss to Kansas City, or during his bout of plantar fasciitis, benched behind Brock Osweiler, you might well have been laughed out of a Papa John’s.

Now, of course, it’s all academic… or, whatever the sportswriting equivalent of academic might be. It was the worst season, statistically, of Manning’s remarkable touchdown-passin’, corporate-shillin’ NFL career and it was still good enough for a Super Bowl title. It’s kind of like that Lonely Island song “I Just Had Sex.” He threw 17 interceptions in just 10 games this season? Doesn’t matter, won the Super Bowl. Only nine touchdown passes? Doesn’t matter, won the Super Bowl. And now he’s done it twice.

The only thing surer than the fact that Peyton Manning drank a whole lot of Budweiser last night is that, sometime soon, he is going to retire. When he does, you can look forward to more than a few “Why Peyton Manning Is Not the Greatest Quarterback of All Time” hot takes being published, but, thanks to this bookend of a Super Bowl he just won, those Manning naysayers now have a lot less ammunition. A few of those pieces may even find themselves among that great rubbish bin of history, next to stories like “Charlotte Aglow With Super Bowl Glory” and “2016: The Year of the Dab.”