Happy trails to you, Peyton Manning.
The Last Rodeo was one wild ride. It was a grind. It ain’t easy being old in the NFL. Manning’s 39-year-old body took a pounding and it hurt to look at his stats.
But in the end, he wore the smile of a Super Bowl champion after Denver beat Carolina 24-10.
Next stop, Disneyland? Nope. First stop: the fridge.
“I’m going to drink a whole lot of beer,” Manning said Sunday.
For the third time in franchise history, the Broncos are NFL champions.
“This one’s for Pat!” shouted Denver general manager John Elway, raising the Lombardi Trophy in a salute to 71-year-old franchise owner Pat Bowlen, who is fighting Alzheimer’s disease and was unable to make the trip to California.
But the Broncos would not have been here without Mr. B. “He’s my second father,” Elway said. “I owe everything to him.”
Denver, which entered the game as a 5½-point underdog to Carolina, owes this stunning upset to the league’s No. 1 defense, which gave as dominating a defensive performance as the Super Bowl has seen. With apologies and gratitude to the Orange Crush of the 1970s, this is the best defense in the team’s storied history.
“I think,” said Broncos cornerback Chris Harris, upping the ante, “we are the best defense in the NFL. Ever.”
Manning rode off into an orange sunset on the back of Broncos linebacker Von Miller and a masterful game plan of 68-year-old defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Manning is The Sheriff. But Miller, who was the most valuable player of the game, laid down the law.
“The MVP is great,” said Miller, who was injured and unable to play in Denver’s blowout loss in the Super Bowl against Seattle two years ago. “But I’ll take the ring.”
The Broncos dared to tug on Superman’s cape. They turned Carolina quarterback Cam Newton into a mere mortal, sacking him six times and forcing him into turnovers that led to both of Denver’s touchdowns.
With 6 minutes, 34 seconds remaining in the first quarter and the Broncos already ahead by three points, Newton dropped back to pass in the shadow of his goal line. Miller pounced on him without warning, blowing by Panthers right tackle Mike Remmers and ripping the football from the hands of Carolina’s quarterback. Malik Jackson fell on the turnover in the end zone for a touchdown. Denver was ahead 10-0. And the tone was set. In stone.
Miller is half man, half monster. And Superman was no match for the Vonster. The arrogance of Newton dissolved into panic. He finished with 18 completions on 41 attempts for 265 yards, with a quarterback rating of 55.4.
Asked to explain his disappointment in defeat, Newton pouted. “We lost,” he said.
Yes, the Panthers led the NFL in scoring, averaging 31 points per game. The Broncos were not impressed.
“We know they can’t play from behind. They’re front-runners,” said Denver safety T.J. Ward, his voice filled with defiance.
The Broncos exhibited the same disdain for Newton as they did for New England’s Tom Brady, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and every quarterback they faced. “I don’t care who we’re playing. There’s 100 percent confidence,” Ward said. “It doesn’t matter if we’re playing Johnny Unitas. If he came out there, we’d shut him down.”
The Broncos won with an offense that only a mother — or a very conservative coach Gary Kubiak — could love.
Manning, who has thrown for more touchdowns than any quarterback in NFL history, played as if he was on his last legs. He completed only 13 passes. The 194 yards in total offense by the Broncos were the fewest by any of the 50 Super Bowl winners. But the ring shines just the same.
Manning insisted he will take the time to celebrate with teammates and consult with family members before making a decision on retirement. But Archie Manning, the famous father of Denver’s famous quarterback, told me in the days before this game that it would please him to see his son win and walk away a champion.
On the field after the victory, as gold confetti flew, commissioner Roger Goodell turned to Manning and spoke for everybody in NFL Nation.
“Peyton, I don’t know if this is your Last Rodeo,” Goodell told Manning. “But it was one heck of a ride. And we thank you for the ride.”
Mark Kiszla: email@example.com or @markkiszla