ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- John Elway sat up in his box last Sunday, watching the Denver Broncos' lead wither away. Elway, of course, was the architect of many Broncos victories, and his career arc remains a romantic ideal: He retired after the 1998 season as a champion, leaving the game after winning two straight Super Bowls and setting to rest, at the last possible moments available to him, the notion that he could not win on the biggest stage.
It is not lost on Elway that the same reputation has been attached to Peyton Manning with his career in the latter stages.
Manning, at 37, is the same age now that Elway was when he won his first Super Bowl, and it is impossible not to draw parallels between the two men. Elway had no comparable rivalry during his career like Manning has with Brady -- Elway mentioned maybe Bernie Kosar because they played each other three times in the conference championship game in Elway's early years, drawing laughter from reporters -- but because of their shared profession, of their uncommonly similar circumstances, Elway has a unique window into Manning's mindset as Manning prepares to face Brady for the 15th time, and for the chance to play in his third Super Bowl.
The familiar question, then, is whether Elway, the Broncos' executive vice president of football operations, suspects that Manning might follow his path to retirement should their parallel careers align again, if Manning wins a second Super Bowl to provide a neat bookend to his career.
Elway said he does not know what Manning will do -- they will not talk about it until after the season anyway -- but his own experience is telling, about what a professional athlete ponders when, as Manning has put it several times recently, they see the light at the end of the tunnel.
"I still think he's young and he's playing well," Elway said, in a meeting with a small group of reporters Thursday. "That's going to come down to Peyton. It's going to come down to what he wants to do. Having been a football player before, when you leave this game, you want to leave it on your last leg and try not to leave anything on the table. So, anybody that's a competitor, that's kind of the way they want to leave the game. I was just fortunate to be able to be on two great football teams and be able to win world championships when my last leg broke."
In that way, the trajectories of Elway and Manning are much different. Manning spoke this week about feeling refreshed with a new offense with new teammates and coaches. He continues to enjoy the dogged preparation he has always engaged in, noting that he has often heard older players say they love playing on Sunday but no longer enjoy the work that leads up to it. He has played, remarkably, the best season of his career -- the best season of any quarterback's career -- at an age and following a neck injury that would surely have sent most of his peers to the golf course for good. His much-scrutinized arm strength has not caused his game to deteriorate, the element that Elway said ultimately drove him from the field. The soundness of Manning's neck might ultimately dictate his timetable, but Elway's history is probably instructive, too, because of the insight it offers into the way players of this stature think.
"I looked at my whole last year, and I think I missed four games my last year," Elway said. "So, could I have gotten through another year? Sure, I could have. But would it have been at the level I want to get, being at the same level, was I enjoying the game as much as I had enjoyed it? No, because it took me so long to heal. It was kind of the beginning of the body breaking down. So the combination of both and being able to run off into the sunset, made it easier for me."
There seems little doubt that Manning is still enjoying playing.
"I can't imagine him not -- throwing 55 touchdown passes and 5,400 yards," Elway said. "I guarantee you if I was in his shoes, I would have enjoyed it. I'm sure he is still enjoying it, and he's on a good football team, which also, late in your career, is crucial."
Putting that team together has been Elway's responsibility, although he was not always certain he would pursue this post-playing path. Elway said that when he retired, he wanted to get away from the game, to find out if there was something out there for him other than football. Elway has been wildly successful at nearly everything he has done -- from playing, to car dealerships, to restaurants -- but ultimately he received his answer.
"It took me two years to figure out there wasn't -- three years to really figure out that I'm built to be involved with football somehow," Elway said. "That's really what I know the best because that's what I've spent all my time on. My adult life has been in football. I had the dealerships and restaurants, but those don't have scoreboards on Sundays. When you're used to seeing a scoreboard -- even when you are 4, 5, 6, 7 years old -- on Saturday and Sunday every weekend in the fall, I don't think you ever break that."
He was charged with rebuilding the Broncos, with restoring a winning culture in a team that was trying to recover from the failed Josh McDaniels experiment. Elway praised McDaniels as a bright, young coach -- the same praise he heaped on his current offensive coordinator, Adam Gase, for whom he said he wished he could play. But he also had the unenviable task of jettisoning Tim Tebow and the more enviable job of wooing Manning.
The stunning loss to the Baltimore Ravens last postseason, Elway believes, steeled the Broncos from the shocks of this season, from Von Miller's early-season suspension to John Fox's midseason open-heart surgery. When he took the job, Elway said, he never expected to face as much adversity as the Broncos have. Elway said the calls about Miller's suspension and about the arrests of two Broncos executives on drunk-driving charges ruined his summer, but the Broncos have successfully navigated it all, in addition to the more routine laundry list of injuries.
For all the success Elway has enjoyed in his second career go-around in Denver, though, there was a certain wistfulness to how he viewed it compared with his playing days.
"It's very different and it takes some getting used to," Elway said, as he sat at the head of a conference table. "I enjoy watching the regular-season games, but I was absolutely miserable last week watching this game. I mean, it took me four hours to get the pit out of my stomach after the game was over. As a player, it was so exciting to be in this because this is what you work for. So it's not nearly as much fun upstairs as it is down on the field, especially these championship games or playoffs.
"But I also am proud of being a part of it and being able to help put the team together, put the coaches together, put the personnel side and everything that comes together. I'm proud of everybody that has been a part of putting this whole thing together. So there is a lot of pride in that. It's a different feeling then -- there's more of a quiet pride than there is being the quarterback, where everyone is patting you on the back."
Both Elway and Manning have spoken about the fraternity of quarterbacks -- Manning reflexively defends all of them -- and Elway said they talk more frequently about philosophy and less about X's and O's. Manning joked that Elway does not sit in on quarterbacks meetings or get on the phone during games. But Manning has used Elway as a resource to learn even more about quarterbacking, the same way, Manning said, he learned from his father when he was younger.
At some point soon, they will talk about Manning's future. Perhaps the outcome of this season, whether it ends Sunday or two weeks from now at MetLife Stadium, will push Manning toward a decision, the way it did for Elway. But for now, this Manning season bears little resemblance to Elway's injury-riddled final season. Except, they hope, in the final result.
"I really don't think it's hard to block that out," Manning said. "As a matter of fact, I think it's probably even easier just to hone in on what's taking place right now. I really felt that that has been my approach since the beginning of last season. Just when you go through a significant injury and a major career change, you truly do go one year at a time, and you don't look past what's going on now because you are not sure what's going to happen. Tomorrow is not promised. For a young player, sure, it can be easy to look ahead to maybe that new contract that they want to get or some career goal that they're trying to achieve. But at this point in my career, it's easy just to focus in on what's going on right now."
And here are five things to focus on as we hurtle toward Championship Sunday:
1) Can the top seeds buck a trend and advance? Since the NFL started naming No. 1 seeds in 1975, just nine Super Bowls have featured each conference's top dog. The most recent instance occurred at the end of the 2009 campaign, when Peyton Manning's Indianapolis Colts lost to the New Orleans Saints.
2) Are we witnessing a revolution in quarterback play? Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson do not just represent the next generation of quarterbacks, they represent an entirely different style of play. They combined for 1,063 yards rushing this season. Their older and less-nimble AFC counterparts, Brady and Manning, combined for -13 rushing yards this year -- and 1,463 rushing yards in their careers.
3) Is the NFC Championship Game an aberration or the tip of the iceberg for offensive play? Last weekend, three of the four winning quarterbacks passed for fewer than 200 yards (Manning had 230). The NFC's two best teams are also the only teams in the league that rushed on more than 50 percent of their offensive plays this season. The 49ers rushed 52.5 percent of the time, most in the NFL, while the Seahawks rushed 52.3 percent of the time. The last Super Bowl champion to rush more than half of the time was Jerome Bettis' 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers, who ran the ball on 57.2 percent of their offensive plays. The power-rushing incarnation of the New England Patriots has rushed 63 percent of the time in its last two games, a throwback to the franchise's last championship team. The 2004 Pats, with Corey Dillon leading the way, rushed 50.6 percent of the time.
4) What version of the Broncos' defense will the Patriots face? When the Patriots beat the Broncos in November, Denver had linebacker Von Miller and cornerback Chris Harris (both of whom are now out for the season), but the team was still giving up an average of 26.6 points per game. In their last three games, though, the Broncos have given up just 14.7 points per game, while allowing 120 fewer total yards per game (almost 87 fewer passing and 33 fewer rushing) than they did in the first 14 outings of the season.
5) Can Denver avoid turnovers? Since Week 16, the Patriots are tied for the league lead in takeaways, with eight. Manning has thrown 22 interceptions in 21 career postseason games, and the Broncos' offense turned the ball over 26 times in the regular season, which ranked right in the middle of the league. Manning threw just 10 interceptions this season -- one more than his career low set in 2006 -- but he also fumbled 10 times, losing six of them. In their Week 12 win, the Patriots intercepted Manning once and forced five fumbles, three of which they recovered. Of the four remaining teams, the Broncos had the worst turnover differential in the regular season -- zero.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.