EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The woman in the orange hat pushed a small blanket toward him, and Peyton Manning paused and took the pen. He signed it, offered a small smile -- hers was much bigger -- and walked on, toward another small cluster of people with slips of paper and tickets in hand. He signed them, too, and kept going, hands in his pockets, eyes down, around a corner in the tunnel of MetLife Stadium and into the cool night.
Perhaps the 43-8 blowout to the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII had provided Manning with enough time to digest this loss, possibly the most painful he has ever suffered, given the circumstances, allowing him to continue to operate as he usually does, as an unofficial league statesman. It is the circumstances of Manning's career that had elevated this Super Bowl beyond its already significant meaning into some kind of referendum on his legacy. The myopia of sports suggests that the tally -- despite the records, despite the relentless regular-season success -- is now decidedly unfavorable, that the quarterback who is likely to one day hold every significant passing record will eventually leave the game with a shadow on his success. Julius Thomas, the Denver tight end, defended Manning, correctly saying that he was the reason the Broncos were in the Super Bowl in the first place. But Manning has now lost two of the three Super Bowls he has played in, and has thrown pick-sixes in each of those losses.
Manning was asked afterward if this kind of performance was embarrassing to him.
"It's not embarrassing," he said, in a rare flash of irritation. "I would never use that word. The word embarrassing is an insulting word, to tell you the truth."
This defeat, though, seemed more devastating than the one to the Saints four years ago, and not just because the Broncos were overwhelmed by the Seattle defense from the very first snap, which sailed over Manning's head for a safety in a spectacular moment of miscommunication, or because Manning played poorly. We didn't know four years ago that Manning's neck was fragile or that his career was closing in on its conclusion. The point that Manning has reached now -- where he recognizes how fleeting these opportunities are -- was still well in the distance. You did not watch Manning after he lost to the Saints and think he might never be so close to another Lombardi Trophy.
You did this time. As the 37-year-old Manning settled behind the dais in his immaculate blue suit, a much younger quarterback, Russell Wilson, was on the other side of a curtain, claiming his prize. Wilson is of the next generation, a generation that grew up going to the passing camp Manning and his family run, only to crib so many notes from Manning that he was able to eventually topple him. The Broncos used last year's loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round to fuel them this season, to drive them toward the touchdowns and points records, toward home-field advantage, toward the two playoff victories. And then it all crumbled in a heap of bad plays so plentiful that they helped to diffuse the blame, but which inevitably will be boiled down to Manning alone.
He didn't see a wide-open Wes Welker on one play in the first half, he was hit as he threw on another, and the ball landed in Malcolm Smith's hands for an interception that was returned for a touchdown. He seemed to be feeling the Seahawks' relentless pressure all night, as he was forced to move around. At one point in the game, when it already seemed too late, Manning flipped through the pictures he has on the sideline, as if in a desperate search for something that would work. He would never find it. The Seattle defense was too fast to allow separation by the Denver receivers, and the only passes that could be counted on -- screens -- the Seahawks were quick to close on. There was no running game at all, and the offensive line collapsed against the pass rush. In Manning's two years in Denver, the Broncos had not had a game like this. And even in a career that has been dotted by postseason disappointment, this will stand out as a stunning flop.
"It's a difficult pill to swallow," he said, his mouth tight. "You have to find a way to deal with it and process it and, if you can, find a way to fuel you next year.
"It's not a quick fix."
Everything, of course, has to be quick for Manning now. He said when the game was over, when the field was dotted with a blizzard of green and blue confetti, that this outcome does not change the way he is thinking about next season -- he wants to play and he expects to play, barring an unexpected medical development. To those who have watched him for 16 seasons, it is easy to imagine that somehow he will come back in a few months having found greater focus, more urgency, deeper commitment.
But what Manning's own arc has shown us -- has shown him, too -- is how ephemeral this all is. One year, you're a few plays from winning the Super Bowl, and two years later, you're unable to play at all, your arm a noodle to be compared to Chad Pennington's. There is no guarantee that he can keep outpacing his age, that his extraordinary ability to get better in his late 30s is going to continue. That is what made this loss seem so wrenching.
When Manning returned to the game after the four neck surgeries, he said that he wanted to be the player fans thought they remembered. He mostly has been that, elevating the Broncos, setting the records, dazzling week after week. But now, he also has been what his detractors think they remember -- someone who is unable to rise to the greatest occasions. His coach, John Fox, bristled in the moments right after the loss when asked to consider those who question Manning's greatness.
"I'd say, I can't really say it out loud right here," Fox said. "I'd get in trouble. 'Ludicrous,' would be proper English."
Manning's remarkable recovery from an injury that left him unable to throw should have quieted his doubters. He has already climbed much higher than perhaps even he expected he could again, getting so very close to the top. And then he slipped off the peak. This loss might haunt him for a while, and it might taint his resume forever. But as Manning walked away empty-handed Sunday night, through the crowds that still wanted something to remember this year by, it did not make the climb back any less impressive, even if this one night was cold and painful.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.