SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- We've been talking about it all year - Was Super Bowl 50 the last we've seen of future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning in the NFL as a player?
The discussion ramped up earlier this year: Ravaged with injuries, Manning led the league in interceptions, and he didn't even play a full season.
His performance dip and seeming inability to throw 'em like he used to in just the first few games of the season made the questions come up frequently:
"Is he done?"
"Can he do it anymore?"
"Is this the time to call it a career?"
Despite all the noise and negativity, The Sheriff got the Denver Broncos back to the Super Bowl by using what is still among the sharpest in the league: His football intelligence.
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It's no secret that Manning, 39, can't hit those 40-yard passes downfield in stride anymore, but what is a secret is how Peyton is able to read defenses as well as he does, shifting his offense to exploit weakness, audibling when he sees an opportunity, and almost always choosing the right throw to make, even if it isn't as sharp of a delivery as it once was.
WATCH in the video player above: Our sports team has debated what will happen with Peyton all year. See those discussions and the Q&A with you about Manning's future.
The debate really bubbled up when Manning had to take a back-seat to Brock Osweiler, the back-up for the Denver Broncos. Manning's torn plantar fascia got the best of him, allowing him to barely surpass the all-time record for yards in a career in the NFL, only to come out a few plays later in Week 10. This came a week after the attempt at the record was abruptly halted thanks to a valiant effort by none other than your Indianapolis Colts, when they beat the Broncos in Week 9, 27-24.
The questions flew even faster when Osweiler was named the starter in Week 17 against the San Diego Chargers with the No. 1 seed in the playoffs on the line over an active Manning. Peyton did come in after halftime to win that game, and secure the No. 1 seed.
“Our defense has been outstanding all season,” Manning said after their win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round of the playoffs. “They’ve led us to this point. Let’s make that clear.”
As the playoffs progressed, more signs pointed to Manning's mind being made up.
The AFC Championship win over the New England Patriots was followed by a comment only befitting of The Sheriff at midfield to his respected head coach rival Bill Belichick: "This might be my last rodeo, so it's been a real pleasure."
Peyton being Peyton, when confronted about these signs pointing to retirement, he played it cool.
"I don't know the answer to that question right now," Peyton told NFL Network correspondent and former teammate Marshall Faulk at Super Bowl Opening Night.
The night before the Super Bowl - Peyton reportedly got emotional, and "near tears", according to ESPN.
"(Peyton and Demarcus Ware) were very emotional and near tears," Broncos team president Joe Ellis told ESPN's Sal Paolantonio. "Peyton told a few jokes to lighten the mood, but then he got very emotional [when talking about what the game meant to him]. And so did DeMarcus. The room was silent. It was a very emotional gathering."
He wouldn't budge in interviews after the big win, continuing to say he'd take some time and that he "didn't know the answer to that question."
Then there's the matter of how Peyton might retire, should he decide to do so. Jim Irsay wants him to retire as a Colt.
Two Super Bowls with Indianapolis. Two Super Bowls with Denver. One win, one yet to be played.
A victory over the almost-undefeated Carolina Panthers would certainly even the score of impact on both franchises, but Manning's legacy on this Midwestern community far surpasses that of his time spent in Denver.
Knowing who Peyton is; shy but forward, private but forthcoming, tactful but withdrawn: Who really expects the decision to come Sunday?
As expected, after Peyton won Sunday's big game, he didn't say, "I'm going to Disney World, because I'm retiring!"
That's just not his style. He's a skilled marketer. He knows he has a brand to build, both inside of football and out (see: any Papa John's commercial right now ).
His New York Giants QB brother, Eli, who is just as much lying in wait as the rest of the world on Peyton's decision, was no help either.
"I don't think he's even thought about it. He'll take some time when the season is over. It's all football right now," Eli Manning said.
You can expect Peyton to take a few days, win or lose,
to let the hype around whichever team wins Sunday to die down and then come to the table with the best decision for him and his family. You can expect him to deliver the decision with class, and with respect for both the Broncos organization and their fans.
After all, he said approximately 74 times this season that he won't make a final decision until after the season is over.
Whatever the decision is, Indianapolis is behind you, Peyton. And we thank you for what's been an incredible 20-year ride.
Don't forget to show us your #PeytonPride with a picture or video of you in your Peyton Manning gear in support of what could be his last Super Bowl run.
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