EAST RUTHERFORD N.J. — Conventional wisdom suggested Super Bowl XLVIII had no bearing on the illustrious legacy Peyton Manning has crafted over his brilliant career.
Already a Super Bowl winner and five-time MVP and multiple record-holder and future Hall of Famer, Manning's standing was secure no matter what unfolded Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
Win or lose, Manning has climbed so high he is virtually above it all.
But some things are too egregious to overlook.
And some performances are so flagrant, they warrant a closer look.
Especially when they occur on the biggest stage in American sports.
The Denver Broncos' utter meltdown in a 43-8 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, and Manning's hand in the disaster, are too conspicuous to write off as a non factor in his career.
He doesn't get a free pass after throwing two terrible interceptions and turning the ball over three times.
Or leading the Broncos to just one measly touchdown in a game that was supposed to crown his career, not force us to reexamine it.
“We needed to play really well in order to win, and we didn't come anywhere close to that,” Manning said.
And he fell as short as anyone with his three turnovers and just 280 yards passing on a deceiving 34 of 49 passing.
In retrospect we should have realized what a bad fit the Seahawks fast, vicious defense was for Manning. He's never been the most fleet of foot, and any mobility he did have has slowly eroded over his long career.
The Seahawks wisely deduced the best way to slow down the Broncos top-ranked offense was to attack Manning. Get in his face, force him off his spots and make him operate on the move rather than allow him to sit back and cut up the defense.
“We knew we weren't going to sack him every play, but the plan was to make him as uncomfortable as possible,” said Seahawks defensive tackle Brandon Mebane said.
That's not a novel idea. Everyone understands that's how you beat Manning. Has been even back in college when the speed and physicality of Florida befuddled Manning and his Tennessee Volunteers.
And that was before age took hold and the effects of four neck surgeries,
But there is a difference in knowing it and being able to execute it. The Seahawks, just as those Gators could years ago, had the power and quickness to overwhelm the Broncos at the line of scrimmage, and the speed and toughness to defend them on the back end. With their front end complementing their back end, the Seahawks could rush Manning out of the pocket. And with the back end holding up its bargain, Manning didn't have the option of making a pre-snap read and flicking the ball so quickly to an open receiver.
Instead, he had to buy time with his legs.
And when that's demanded of Manning, bad things typically follow.
“Give Seattle a lot of credit, they are an excellent football team and they caused a lot of our mistakes,” Manning said.
We get that, which is why it would be unfair to heep all the blame on him for a Broncos meltdown that had us harkening back to some of the worst performances in Super Bowl history.
Manning's mobility issues, the Seahawks defensive dominance and the Broncos inability to counter it at the line of scrimmage were as bad a concoction imaginable for one of the greatest quarterbacks of his generation.
Especially on a night when Manning's young counterpart, Russell Wilson, played as poised as he did, and the electrifying Percy Harvin was as remarkable as he was and the Seahawks speed and moxie were so obvious.
Simply put, this was a horrible matchup for the Broncos.
Why it took us all the way to Super Bowl Sunday to figure that out is astounding.
But there is a reason we missed what is now so obvious.
And his name is Peyton Manning.
His greatness would balance things out.
The best of the best have that ability.
Which is why we look on Manning a bit differently today.
And why the Broncos collapse falls squarely on his shoulders.
The great ones find a way, even when all roads appear closed.
The extraordinary ones figure out an answer, they lift their teams out of harm's way.
The best ones prevail, even in adverse surroundings.
They don't flop, like Manning did Sunday.
And they certainly don't bury their team in a 22-0 hole by throwing two first-half interceptions, one that former USC standout and Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith returned for a 69-yard touchdown and the other that set up a one-yard touchdown pass to Marshawn Lynch.
“We certainly didn't want to do that,” Manning said. “We wanted to keep the game on the field and keep the score even.”
They did anything but.
All of it falls on Manning, who looked about as comfortable as Mitt Romney in a break-dancing contest as the Seahawks forced him off his spot and made him operate on the move.
The results were predictable in retrospect but astounding in real time.
Manning's deep throws were conspicuously off mark, sailed on him or were tipped.
The ones he did complete, especially early on, were insignificant. A dump off here and a short pass there. His 17 of 23 passing in the first half was deceiving, accounting for just 104 yards. The two back-breaking interceptions dragged his quarterback rating to a dismal 46.3.
And the Seahawks led 22-0.
Given the task of navigating his team to safety, Manning didn't just sink with the rest of his mates, he pretty much sailed the ship right into the iceberg.
“We weren't sharp offensively from the get go,” he said.
And it's impossible ignore such an glaring performance when pondering Manning's legacy.
Especially when stacked atop his previous playoffs failures, including a loss to the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV which included a pick-six interception in the closing minutes.
If his career ended today, it will be one defined more by statistics than championships.
Yes, he has a Super Bowl victory.
But a quarterback as illustrious as Manning is expected to do more.
In the final analysis, he will be remembered for individual brilliance that didn't always result in team greatness.
Much like his record-setting performance on Sunday, in which he actually set a new mark for pass completions in a Super Bowl, something didn't quite add up.
In one of the more deplorable Super Bowl losses in years, Manning set a new record.
Are we really surprised anymore?