Timeout: Harsha Sridhar

Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Beall

If the Carolina Panthers are half the team I think they are, next weekend’s Super Bowl may not be a particularly close. Cam’s Panthers are too everything: too young, too fast, too balanced and, despite a fluke loss to the Atlanta Falcons, too difficult to solve.

The team on the other sideline next Sunday will be a very different group. A team that has been buoyed by an elite defense, that hasn’t found success moving the ball and that has won despite, rather than because of, its Hall of Fame quarterback. That quarterback’s name is Peyton Manning, and if common wisdom holds true, chances are significant that he will take the football field for the last time in his career at Levi’s Stadium. The biggest stage in Manning’s sport would be an appropriate end to his career, one that was revived in the face of overwhelming odds.

When Manning didn’t play during the 2011 season, there was reason to believe that the veteran would see it fit to hang up his cleats. After all, he had made significant achievements: an MVP award, a Super Bowl trophy, start after start miraculously uninterrupted by injury and a virtually airtight case for the Hall of Fame a few years down the line. His spinal fusion surgery left him without any guarantee of returning to playing shape, let alone to the transcendent talent he was prior to the operation.

But Manning played on. When it was apparent that the Colts would draft Andrew Luck with their first overall pick, a sign that the team was ready to move on to a younger face at the helm, he left to Denver, a team that had delt with a glut of mediocrity at quarterback since John Elway years prior. And there, he has transformed himself into a savvy veteran dependent on his acuity and good instincts to lead plodding drives across the field.

This season has been a microcosm of that transformation, the growing realization of an aging star that the game does not come quite as easily as it used to. Benched for an extend period due to injuries and general ineptitude, Manning returned not as the superstar his contract might indicate, but as a steady presence.

Yes, Peyton Manning’s mind still writes checks that whatever remains of his arm can’t cash. Each week, he seems more and more human, making throws we expect from lower echelon signal-callers but certainly not from an athlete in the conversation for the greatest player of his generation. His athletic ability, never his forte, is virtually nonexistent. He depends on the play of receivers like Emannuel Sanders and Tech alum Demaryius Thomas (players who likely grew up watching Manning, incidentally), not to mention a star-studded defense. But even a casual football fan can appreciate the effort expended by a man who admits he can’t feel his fingertips anymore, an individual who has jeopardized his wellbeing to provide us a spectacle.

So come next Sunday, I’ll be rooting for the Broncos. Not just because I think Cam Newton is a little arrogant and Josh Norman talks too much for my liking (though that’s part of it), but because we’re watching the final descent of a legendary career. There’s a chance that it will be turbulent, a real chance that Luke Keuchly and the opportunistic Carolina defense make life difficult for No. 18, providing an unceremonious end to what has been an unusual season. Nevertheless, here’s to a smooth landing.