Win, lose or draw, Peyton Manning has nothing to prove.
Or does he?
He already has been to two Super Bowls and has one ring. He’s a 13-time Pro Bowler and soon-to-be five-time MVP. This year, he engineered the most astounding regular season ever by an NFL quarterback and has been arguably the league’s brightest star for most of his 16-year career.
What’s to prove?
Well, when you’re Peyton Manning and you’re mindful of the game’s history and your own place in it, you don’t want to go to Canton with only one championship — not if you want to remain part of the “greatest ever” debate. Or, more specifically, if you want to be at the center of it.
And make no mistake, Manning wants to be at the center of it.
Moreover, he wants to present the strongest possible argument, something he can’t do with only one Lombardi Trophy.
That’s why Super Bowl XLVIII could be the defining moment of Manning’s legacy.
Win it, and he joins an elite club — one that already includes his brother — of quarterbacks with multiple championships. Lose it, and his reputation as a playoff underachiever — some might even say choker — is cemented.
Manning knows that. He knows it better than anyone. Nothing to prove? He has a little something to demonstrate, not necessarily to the world, but to himself.
For a player of his myriad achievements, made all the more remarkable because they happened in the context of winning, finishing his career with only one championship would be, for Manning, a bit ignominious.
Imagine Michael Jordan or Larry Bird retiring with only one NBA title. Or Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio doing the same with only one World Series ring. The sports and circumstances aren’t precisely analogous, but the superstar comparisons are.
Manning is a superstar and has been for most of his career. His record-breaking, if not breathtaking, 2013 campaign was one for the ages, one the NFL might never see again.
And one that isn’t quite over.
Unlike so many postseason failures past, Manning has — for only the third time in his career — parlayed otherworldly regular-season success into a shot at a world championship. And odds seem to favor him cashing in.
Literally on top of his game, Manning continues to perform at an MVP level. Masterful against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, he has completed 72 percent of his passes in two playoff games and takes a 107 quarterback rating into the Super Bowl.
Through the air and on the ground, the Broncos have multiple means to the end zone. And Manning effectively utilizes each one. The only question heading into the Super Bowl is: Will he continue to do so with a championship on the line?
Sadly for Manning, the biggest stages have often been the sites of his biggest disappointments, be it playoff one-and-dones (he’s had eight) or Super Bowl implosions (he did that four years ago).
But as his one ring bears witness, he also can rise to the grandest occasion. All that’s left to prove is that he can do it again.
His legacy and how it will be defined depend on it.