NEW YORK -- Peyton Manning is the most accomplished quarterback in NFL history.
He has won an unprecedented five MVP awards, adding the fifth to his mantel Saturday night, along with the Offensive Player of the Year Award from the Associated Press. He set records for passing yards (5,477) and touchdowns (55) this year, at age 37, in what was the greatest single season in NFL history. And tonight, when his Denver Broncos play the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, he'll become the third quarterback ever to start the game for two different teams.
But for all his achievements, Manning has watched one part of his Hall of Fame-bound career come into question this week -- his legacy.
With an ordinary 11-11 career postseason record and "just" one Super Bowl title to his name, critics argue that Manning needs another championship today to distinguish himself as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.
Manning did his best to downplay the legacy talk this week, but the topic was unavoidable in almost every media scrum he was a part of.
"I've been being asked about my legacy since I was about 25 years old, which I'm not sure you can have a legacy when you're 25 years old, or even 37," Manning said. "I thought you had to be like 70 to have a legacy. So I'm not 100 percent sure what the word even means. I'm still in the middle of my career. Let me rephrase that, I'm down the homestretch of my career, but I'm still in it. It's not over yet and so it's still playing out."
So far, Manning's career has spanned 16 seasons and gone from good to great while playing for two teams.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 1998 draft, Manning spent his first 14 years with the Indianapolis Colts, won back-to-back MVP awards twice and led the Colts to their only Super Bowl championship in 2007.
He didn't miss a game his first 13 seasons, but four neck surgeries sidelined him for all of 2011 and ended his career in Indianapolis.
Manning signed with the Broncos in March 2012, led the Broncos to a share of the best record in the league each of the last two years -- both Denver and Seattle finished 13-3 this year -- and as he reflects on his injury now, feels fortunate to have the career he has had.
"In some ways, when I had my neck problems, I thought maybe I had been on borrowed time this entire time," Manning said. "I was fortunate to have 20 years of health to play football. If that was going to be the end of it because of a neck injury, I really, believe it or not, had a peace about it.
"Once I had the surgery and went to the doctors for the checkups, I remember I had a physical around this time when the Giants and Patriots were playing in the Super Bowl, and the doctor said, 'Your neck is secure.' He said, 'I'd let you play Super Bowl Sunday and if you were my own son, I'd let you play.' As soon as the doctor told me that, that was the end of it for me on the neck discussion. Now, it was simply a matter of performance. Could I get my strength back to play quarterback at the level I thought a team deserved?"
Certainly, Manning has done that.
He has had two of the three best passing seasons of his career the last two years and Sunday night will become just the 12th quarterback in NFL history to start three Super Bowls.
If the Broncos win Sunday night, Manning will join an exclusive group of signal callers with multiple championships and become the only quarterback to win titles as the starter for two teams.
He still has a ways to go to catch Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana (four Super Bowl wins each) atop that list, but Broncos executive vice president John Elway, a two-time Super Bowl winner, said talk of Manning needing a win Sunday to cement his legacy is silly.
"I mean, what else are you going to talk about Peyton Manning that's negative other than, 'OK, we've got to go to his legacy,'" Elway said. "So I don't think this game, one way or the other, affects his legacy the way that he has played. He's going to be one of the all-time greats no matter what, and this will definitely help (the argument against that) if we lose it. But the bottom line, this year that he has had -- legacies don't get great until you're done. That's when people start talking."
NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner, who won a Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams and lost one with the Arizona Cardinals -- Craig Morton, who lost both his Super Bowl appearances with the Cowboys and Broncos, is the only other quarterback to start Super Bowls for multiple teams -- said Manning will go down among the top handful of quarterbacks ever regardless of what happens Sunday night.
"The big picture is always regular season and postseason, you've got two parts to it," Warner said. "As far as the regular season, I think he's the best quarterback that we've ever seen regular season-wise. I think Tom Brady having played in five Super Bowls is probably the best postseason guy, although you can make arguments for Joe Montana and those guys that have won four.
"And so I think the question becomes, you have to add the two up in the equation, how far ahead in the regular season is he where three Super Bowl appearances, possibly two Super Bowl victories, matches him to guys that have won four? And I don't know what the answer to that question is, I just know I put him in that conversation and any championships that he wins beyond this only gets him closer to the top if he's not already there."
Manning made it clear last week that he has no plans to retire, though his pursuit of more championships has little to do with his legacy.
"This legacy question keeps popping up, and I guess I had a little more time to think about it," Manning said. "If I had my choice, what my legacy would be, would be that I played my butt off for every team that I ever played on, I was a really good teammate and I did everything I could to win. Whatever happens along in that time is fine with me. Those are things that I care about."
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