EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Peyton Manning revealed nothing.
The sting of defeat, the continuation of questions about his legacy into 2014, the sense of loss he undoubtedly felt after his greatest season ended in an utterly lopsided defeat … it was all cloaked by Manning's concise, business-like facade following another Super Bowl defeat.
Manning, after turning the ball over three times in a brutal 43-8 loss to Seattle at MetLife Stadium on Sunday night, and suffering through a horrid first half that will only renew the probing of his postseason career, wasn't in the mood for introspection or reflection. This was a CEO, adorned in a classic power suit, perfectly manicured, being asked by the media why his can't-miss stock suddenly tanked, as Manning stuck tightly to his talking points and did not waver.
"Certainly, to finish this way is very disappointing," Manning said, the words coming out but his expression fairly blank. "It's not an easy pill to swallow."
There was plenty of blame to go around Sunday. Denver's offensive approach seemed quite conservative, its offensive line was a mess from the botched opening snap for a safety (center Manny Ramirez and Manning both called it a cadence issue due to the noise -- "From what I was told I was three seconds late," Ramirez said). And at times Denver's receivers seemed just plain battered and smothered by Seattle's huge and punishing secondary.
But that's a mere subplot, at best, to the story of Super Bowl XLVIII. We can't pretend that Peyton Manning, coming off his best season ever and playing in the stadium where his little brother plays his home games, was not the story here. Put the raging argument about the impact this one game will have on Manning's legacy on pause for a minute. Forget even about his past playoff failures for now.
Consider merely this three-hour snapshot of football, for any great quarterback, and it would be folly to consider it anything but a failure. There is no other way to couch it. Had Seahawks corner Richard Sherman been quacking like a duck at Manning from the sidelines by the second quarter, well, no one could blame him with Manning's flailing pass fluttering right to safety Kam Chancellor for his first of two interceptions (there could have been several more), and the Aflac jokes threatening to take over Twitter.
"That was a poor play on my part," Manning said of the first interception, showing little emotion throughout his remarks to the media, save to negate a suggestion that there was anything "embarrassing" about the way he and his offense played Sunday.
"We didn't perform up to par to be able to hang with them," Broncos coach John Fox said, crediting Seattle's "combination of coverage and pressure" for thwarting the Denver offense.
And this performance, within the context of all Manning has accomplished -- and what has proven to be so elusive -- was a total, collective dud. For what some argued might have been the best offense ever, to be so thoroughly overwhelmed by an opponent, with the entire season at stake, to be down 22-0 at the half, has to rank as one of the most disappointing outings of Manning's remarkably distinguished career.
"It's all about making history," Seahawks safety Earl Thomas said. "This was a dominant performance from top to bottom."
The loss takes nothing away from the courage and determination Manning displayed in fighting back from serious neck and nerve issues to play his best football at an advanced age with a new team. But of all the teams in the NFL, none is more in Lombardi-or-bust mode than the Broncos, with the mere presence of their 37-year old quarterback a huge part of that.
Sunday night -- with two first-half interceptions, including a pick-six, and a quarterback rating of 44 at the half -- was an unmitigated disaster. The poor exchange to start the game, resulting in a safety just 12 seconds in, was a harbinger of what was to come. Manning, who finished with a passer rating of 73.5, never looked good for an entire series, he struggled moving his feet against a potent pass rush and spent the bulk of this blowout just trying to score what would amount to garbage points with Seattle ahead 29-0 12 seconds into the second half.
"By no means are we blaming Peyton for anything," tight end Julius Thomas said. "He's the reason we're here."
Let's be clear: Nothing that happened Sunday -- nothing -- could ever take away from Manning's status as one of the best to every throw a football. He's on the Mount Rushmore of all-time greats. That is no subject to debate. That was never at stake here among those with the mental capacity to, say, utter "Omaha" or order a Papa John's pizza.
However, if you are broaching the argument about whether Manning should stand alone atop that mountain as the GOAT -- and one could dispute in a sport with so many varied positions and responsibilities whether such an arbitrary designation matters -- well, then you can't kid yourself that lackluster showings in career-defining games aren't a factor.
Fact is, Manning was outplayed, big time, by second-year quarterback Russell Wilson. Wilson showed off his ability to keep plays alive, make alert decisions, spread the ball around and, most importantly, protect the football, far outshining the veteran. In Manning's last Super Bowl appearance, Drew Brees was far superior, and Manning's pick-six late in that game was the signature play of that championship and settled the outcome.
Manning was awarded the MVP in his first Super Bowl appearance, and lone win, but even then he was tepid -- certainly by his standards -- with a touchdown and 247 passing yards. The Colts' running game and defense was the difference on that Sunday evening (as well as the fact it was Rex Grossman commanding the Bears offense). Manning has never had a quarterback rating above 88.5 in a Super Bowl, he's always thrown at least one interception, and he's never thrown more than one touchdown pass.
Manning's career passer rating is 97.2. He had a rating of 115 this season, and he hasn't had a rating as modest as 88.5 in a season since 2001. Manning's career rating in Super Bowls is 80.9, with three touchdowns and four total touchdowns, and he has tossed 24 interceptions in 23 career playoff games. Manning has 11 wins and an NFL record 12 losses. Few know more about postseason defeat.
"I don't know if you ever really get over it," Manning said.
None of those losses is entirely on Manning, and, in the past, you could certainly posit that Manning elevated everyone around him and made due with a pedestrian case around him. No longer. Not in his two years in Denver, for sure, with a bounty of receivers, tight ends and backs any quarterback would covet (certainly his longtime rival Tom Brady, he of the eight AFC championship games, five Super Bowl appearances and three rings).
Denver's offensive line simply did not show up against the Seahawks, and the crushing physical tone Seattle's defensive backs set early appeared a bit too much for the Broncos receivers. They struggled to get open, the game plan was all dinks-and-dunks (consider Manning attempted 23 passes in the first half for just 104 yards -- a shocking 4.5 yards per attempt). He managed to set the Super Bowl record for completions, without any of them managing to be the least bit memorable.
Manning appeared overwhelmingly fearful of testing Seattle's deep safeties, and, when he did, he was largely burned for it with a turnover, or otherwise missed his target. When Manning finally did throw a touchdown pass, it served to pull Denver to within 36-8 as the third quarter expired.
That classic Manning smirk was on display by midway through the third quarter, his down-trodden lurch toward the locker room at halftime was captured by the bevy of photographers lining the field, and the family scoreboard still reads: Eli 2, Peyton 1. All while the MetLife Stadium scoreboard illuminated the vast chasm that existed between the Seahawks and Broncos, and between, perhaps, what Manning may have accomplished with a victory in the final game of the 2013 NFL season.