DENVER -- Marshall Manning was practicing writing his name in marker on the locker-room white board as his father got ready to try to make sense of the oddities of the season that will take him to his fourth and most improbable Super Bowl. A few yards away, John Elway, who has spent the last two seasons trying to construct a team to support an older quarterback as he had been supported himself, offered what passes for high praise for Peyton Manning now.
"He understands where he is at and what we are trying to do offensively," Elway said. "He has always been a great game manager, but even more so now."
There will be no more 55-touchdown seasons for Manning, who reached that mark in 2013; it seems unlikely there will be any more seasons at all after this one. His role is different. The path of his current season has been circuitous and jarring and sometimes painful. He is no longer the young quarterback with many years ahead of him, who walked straight from the field into a room with reporters, conducting postgame press conferences in shoulder pads because that was his next obligation. He takes longer to get ready now, not just because he must tend to his body differently, but because his son, clutching a Lego set, climbs into his lap as he puts on his shoes.
The passage of time for Manning can be summed up in those moments and in unintentionally amusing remarks by friends like Shannon Sharpe, who noted that Manning's "mind is still sharp," as if Manning has been doddering around Denver. But Sharpe's point was accurate -- Manning still can do what the Broncos need, to get the offense out of bad plays into good ones, to get them out of good ones into great ones. It is why he has his job back after it had appeared to be forever lost. It is why he now has one more chance, almost certainly one last chance, to fill the only hole in his sterling résumé.
"There is no question this is a sweet day, this was a sweet victory," he said, with Marshall clutching the bottom of his suit jacket as he hid behind his father on the podium. "To me, this victory is a great example of what this entire season has been like. It hasn't been easy. It's been a lot of different people stepping up and doing their parts at different times. It's been a unique season, there's no question about it."
On Sunday, Manning briefly stopped the countdown and the conversation that has arisen this season around his career, although it will inevitably resurface in the next two weeks as he is compared to the next-gen quarterback, Panthers star Cam Newton. But with his body as healthy as it has been in a year, with his passes looking as crisp as they have all season, with darkness falling inevitably over his extraordinary era, Manning seemed at peace with his fortunes.
He was not the most important Bronco on the field, not after completing 17 of 32 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns. That distinction belongs to Von Miller and the defense that mangled Tom Brady. It was impossible not to notice that, as the most critical plays of the game were being run in the waning moments, Manning was on the sideline, his hands on his hips, his helmet on, watching the defense that has now taken the Broncos' mantle.
When the Patriots' late two-point conversion attempt failed, Manning pumped his arm in celebration, once, twice, three times, and then immediately signaled to his teammates that they had to recover an onside kick to end the game. Manning has always been as much of a coach on the field as there has ever been, but there was something noteworthy about that moment. Manning is relying on others for his ride now, the way they once relied on him, the way Elway intended it to be.
"You try to do your part and contribute," Manning said. "My role has been different and my contributions are different. I'm fortunate and grateful that I have the opportunity to contribute still in some way."
This must be strange for Manning, the most in charge of quarterbacks depending so much on others for success. Elway had to do this, too, and he understands what Manning is going through -- not just the awkward transition to a different style of play, but the relentless battle to not think about how close to the end he is.
The end, in fact, seemed much closer than it turned out to be. But when the Broncos were winning with Brock Osweiler starting, when Manning was nursing a foot injury, when it appeared devastatingly possible that Manning would never see the field again, coach Gary Kubiak was privately thinking there was still a chance for a fairytale ending in Denver.
That may not be -- it certainly wasn't to be when the Broncos were bludgeoned by the Seahawks two years ago -- but in Santa Clara, Manning will start in his fourth Super Bowl for his fourth different coach, with an opportunity to finally win that elusive second championship, in a singularly unexpected season. Whatever the final score, whoever prevails, it is a far better end, assuming this will be an end, than appeared possible just three weeks ago.
Kubiak's offense has not been a perfect fit for Manning -- as well as a bootleg worked on Sunday, it still is a shock to see Manning running it. But Kubiak pulled Osweiler and reinserted Manning in the final game of the regular season when he really didn't have to, when it was the receivers who were more obviously failing than Osweiler. Kubiak said he knew three or four weeks ago that Manning was ready to come back to lead the Broncos, but it was a leap of faith that Manning would be better than he was in the early part of the season, when his body was failing him and the end looked as if it would be bitter. Kubiak, brought in to usher Manning into his twilight, breathed a final gasp of life into a career that has taken the breath away from so many others.
Manning is not that quarterback anymore -- will almost certainly never be again -- but on Sunday, he was the better one on the field. He did not look rattled by a pass rush, did not throw two interceptions. He was patient and did not make a mistake, although he missed a would-be dagger of a touchdown throw early in the fourth quarter that he has made a hundred times.
But there was little time to dwell on that. The NFC-champion Panthers are an unfamiliar opponent, and Manning was already talking about all the tape he will have to watch in the next two weeks. He has pushed off reflection all season, and he will do it for another two weeks.
"I really tried to take it one week at a time all season long, through my injuries and through some of the other things that have gone on, just kind of staying in the moment and taking it one week at a time. Not assuming this is how it's going to be, this is the final decision here one way or another, so I'm trying to take it one week at a time, stay patient, and I think that's served me well. Staying patient in these past two playoff games has served our team well, and it's also definitely served me well."
Marshall Manning was not so patient. As he and his father waited for an elevator that would take them away and home, Marshall tugged on his father.
"We're going, we're going," Manning said to his son.
They are. One last time.