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Peyton Manning abandoned his instinct to help the Broncos win a Super Bowl

Peyton Manning has been the greatest quarterback in a generation. Now, he's just the most grateful.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- It sure seems like Peyton Manning is done, especially the way he was so pensive, so appreciative, living this Super Bowl 50 championship as if he were a spectator like the rest of us. It sure seems like he is done, especially the way everyone in the Denver Broncos locker room was kicking around the word "legacy." Like his "legacy is now written" -- that rolled from tight end Vernon Davis. Or this from cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who said two Super Bowl victories with two different teams means Manning "has a legacy that makes him one of the greatest quarterbacks and makes for a nice ending to a career."

Injured offensive tackle Ryan Clady was blunt.

"I don't know why he wouldn't retire now," Clady said. "Man, he's played a long time. He was hurt a lot this year and struggled to get back on top. He understood what he needed to do to win this championship, and that was just let the defense do its thing. I think it's good to go out on top. I don't know why he wouldn't."

Manning "The Sheriff" tossed his badge aside and rode as side Bronco in Super Bowl 50. Denver won it, 24-10, with a punishing, silencing defensive choke-hold on NFL MVP quarterback Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers offense. The Panthers led the league in points scored but managed only seven in the second quarter and three in the fourth. Newton was intercepted once, sacked six times and was twice stripped in the pocket for fumbles lost. One ended in a Broncos touchdown and the other led to a Broncos touchdown. Denver linebacker Von Miller was a terror and was named the game's MVP.

Not Manning. No, he rode as the side Bronco. He threw for only 141 yards. His passer rating was only 56.6.

But he did enough to complement Denver's rousing defense. He did enough to cement his legacy.

"It is very special," Manning said. "I feel very, very grateful."

Everyone has been asking him if this is it. He has played for 18 seasons. He is 39, the oldest quarterback to start a Super Bowl. This victory was his 200th. No quarterback has won more.

It was bombs and bouquets in Indianapolis when he joined the Colts as the 1998 draft's first pick and built an offensive dynasty. But neck surgery and Andrew Luck forced him out in 2012. Denver initially looked like a place of refuge more than a future championship destiny. But Manning lit it up for 37 touchdowns that first season and for 55 more in the second one, reaching the Super Bowl. His team was torched by Seattle that time, but this time he did it, finished it. Accomplished what he came to Denver to do.

There is great joy in that, even if you are riding side Bronco.

"They did a good job that first series," Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "They kind of jumped on us."

Yes, Manning opened the game driving the Broncos quickly downfield for a field goal. Later he threw a strike for a two-point conversion. But for nearly all of the game he simply complemented his defense. He managed the game.

Those are odd words for Peyton Manning.

Early in his career he came to a small town in New Jersey to film a United Way commercial. He played flag football with a group of kids as part of the message. We visited alone in a huge bus that served as his getaway between filming. He joked about how he wanted to send some of the kids long for the bomb -- forget the short stuff. Peyton Manning always enjoyed taking the big shots. He used to tell me that little passes mean "you can't go broke taking a profit." That they had their place. But his inclination was always to push it, sling it, dominate.

Not ride side Bronco.

This is likely why he will walk away. He knows his arm, his neck, his body are more frail, more susceptible. He also knows -- after having so much of his early career lampooned with the notion that he could not "win the big one" -- that walking away a champion in his last game leaves a permanent marker of doing exactly that. Winning the biggest one. Completing his pro circle. Having the final say.

He said his dad, Archie, told him here on Sunday night how proud he was and his brother, Eli, the Giants quarterback, shared a special moment with him in the locker room. Each brother has two Super Bowl victories now.

"Peyton is the consummate pro," Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. "Everyone in our organization wanted this for him. I'm glad. He deserves this for his legacy."

There's that word again.

"His brother has two championships and now Peyton has two and you have to consider them the greatest all-time quarterbacking family," Phillips said. "I'm thinking that about me and my dad (Bum Phillips), that maybe we can be in the conversation as the all-time great coaching family."

Legacies all around. Super Bowl victories sprout them. Nurture them. Only the Broncos were dabbing in their locker room on this night at Levi's Stadium. Only Manning, in Super Bowl history, has started and won with two different teams.

It will be the second consecutive Super Bowl where the winning quarterback leaves with an ongoing NFL investigation percolating. Last year it was Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and DeflateGate. Now it is Manning and HGH allegations. Two consecutive years of win and defend. Manning has called the charges "garbage" and has denied using HGH. The investigation should provide final answers.

Manning says he will take time to decide if his career is done. If he is walking away.

His "legacy" is tugging at his mind and heart. It says go.

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