JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- The jerseys that have piled up in his locker this week -- all with those polite but pointed notes from teammates "sign this for me" -- are just another reminder to Peyton Manning that the light he says he sees at the end of the tunnel of his career is blinding to everybody else, and that even those who know his continued viability best are rushing to commemorate him nonetheless.
"All these hints about retirement," Manning said this week. "I feel like everybody's trying to get rid of me."
Only the opponents. Still, there has been an unmistakable valedictory quality to the Broncos' playoff run, and to this week in particular. Even if the end of Manning's career does not come now -- he says it will not, win or lose Sunday -- it looms so close on the horizon that the accounting of his place in history has already begun. Manning has all but cringed each time his legacy has been discussed this week, but there is little point in ignoring it, and there is little question he has long been aware of it. He said this week he has been asked about his legacy since he was 25 years old.
Even at 25, though, Manning was not playing like this. Manning did not merely construct this year the best season any quarterback has had. He methodically chipped away at each of the perceived demerits on his record, the ones that began forming back when he was 25 and had time on his side. Each time he has seized victory this season -- in breaking the most significant of quarterbacking records, on very cold nights, over his eternal rivals Brady and Belichick, in the postseason games that have often bedeviled him -- Manning has checked off another box that had been a mark against him.
"The numbers are ungodly," John Elway said.
The last time Manning's stature was seriously discussed was four years ago, with a different team, at a different time in his life. He had the Colts then, but not his children or the faded scar on the back of his neck. It was simpler to measure Manning at that Super Bowl. He had one of his routinely extraordinary seasons despite the almost complete absence of a running game or experienced receivers. His preparation was legendary -- at the time, his quarterbacks coach Frank Reich said he and a few other confidants acted as Manning's research and development team, with Manning texting ideas of plays he thought would be useful against the upcoming opponent and then a few others looking for video proof to confirm or refute his theories.
Manning said this week he is no longer as obsessive in his preparation; he is not a robot, he memorably declared, preferring to put his children to bed instead of watching another bit of preseason tape. But his command and control over the offense -- which Dan Marino has said he has never seen another quarterback have as much of -- has not waned. He still peppers his teammates with pop quizzes, after all. And he still forces coaches to make unorthodox decisions in an attempt to beat him. Then, it was the Saints' onside kick to steal a Super Bowl possession. This year, it was Belichick allowing the Broncos to have the ball first in overtime, but forcing Manning to throw into the wind.
Tony Dungy said Manning had dominated his era like nobody other than Otto Graham, and that because championships are fickle, Manning's place in the quarterbacking firmament should have been settled much earlier, when he won his first in the 2006 season.
In hindsight, that Super Bowl was a devilish turning point for Manning. The Colts lost and Manning would never again win a postseason game with them. Then came the neck surgery and the wrenching release, and Manning began what looked to be a quiet receding from the loftiest echelon of the game. What he has done since has surprised even those who have tracked him most closely, who worried that he would never play again.
Manning admitted this week that he never felt entirely at home last year with the Broncos, the unfamiliarity after being a Colt for so long making him feel like he was just renting out the locker for a few months. But this season was a wonder. Whatever physical limitations still exist after his neck injury, he will not say.
He joins in the joking about how ugly some of his passes look -- in truth his passes have always wobbled -- noting that he has thrown for a lot of touchdowns and yards with the wobbles. And if he is no longer the most aggressive player Reich has ever seen -- Manning used to want to throw deep on every play, Reich said four years ago - his passer rating on passes of at least 21 yards in the air is higher than it was in 2009, even though he averages just four such throws per game. But he and coordinator Adam Gase have quickly fallen into step -- Gase is such an aggressive play-caller that Elway said he wished he could have played for him -- and the amalgam of an offense they have constructed off the foundation Manning brought with him from Indianapolis has compensated for whatever was lost to the surgeon's knife.
"Somebody asked me to describe Peyton Manning," said Gil Brandt, who already calls him the greatest regular-season quarterback of all time. "He's the Greg Maddux of the NFL. He masks physical limitations with unmatched knowledge of his position."
When the Broncos signed Manning nearly two years ago, Elway declared his goal to make Manning the best quarterback to ever play the game. The subtext was clear: Manning had to win at least another championship, and probably more, to garner perhaps the only accolade that still eludes him.
The irony is how closely the Broncos team that Elway has constructed for Manning mirrors the one with which Manning won his only title. Both teams had two running backs combine for nearly 2,300 total yards. Both had offensive lines that allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL. The Colts had six receivers with at least 30 receptions; the Broncos are even more diverse, fielding seven receivers with at least 20. But, perhaps most critically, both teams had defenses that, while in the bottom half of the league during the regular season, improved dramatically in the postseason -- each allowing a little more than 16 points per playoff game. Manning was the most valuable player of that Super Bowl, but it was the five turnovers the defense forced against the Bears that really changed the game.
Manning has been noticeably relaxed and reflective this postseason -- more so than when he was younger and in this same spot -- offering unusual insight into his private thoughts during and after his injury, and alluding, frequently, to the coming end of his career. The only questions he has chosen to deflect have been about his legacy. If the Broncos win on Sunday, it won't be a question any longer.
We might finally find out.