NEWARK, N.J. —
1. Manning will retire if he wins
This, from Peyton Manning, when asked if this is his last game, sounds logical. It makes sense. It's smart:
"I know that there have been a number of players who have walked away as champions," Manning said. "I’m sure that it is a great feeling for those people. John Elway. Ray Lewis did it last year. And Michael Strahan. In talking to Ray Lewis, and talking to John Elway, they couldn’t play anymore. It was all they had to give. They truly left it all out there. I certainly had a career change two years ago with my injury and with changing teams. I’ve been truly on a one-year-at-a-time basis.
"So, I really have no plans beyond this game. I had no plans, coming into this season, beyond this year. I think that it is the healthy way to approach your career at this stage. I still enjoy playing football. I feel a little better than I thought I would at this point, coming off that surgery. I still enjoy the preparation part of it, the work part of it. Everybody enjoys the games. Everybody is going to be excited to play in a Super Bowl. When you still enjoy the preparation and the work part of it, I think you ought to be still doing that. I think as soon as I stop enjoying it, if I can’t produce, if I can’t help a team, that’s when I will stop playing. If that’s next year, then maybe it is. I certainly want to continue to keep playing."
Typical Manning: smart, measured, on point. It's also bull.
I don't believe it for a second, and I can tell you few people around the NFL believe it. Almost everyone thinks Manning is gone if he wins and plays well in the victory. In fact, many believe Manning is gone, win or lose.
The belief around football is that Manning is saying he hasn't made up his mind because he doesn't want to be the story of Super Bowl week. Imagine the pressure on the Broncos if Manning came out and said, "Yeah, I'm gone after this, dude. See ya." It would be one of the biggest stories in Super Bowl history. Manning is a lot smarter than that.
Manning, maybe more than any other player I've interviewed (with the possible exception of Jim Brown), understands history. He understands the optics of how things look. He knows how hard it is to reach a Super Bowl and that the odds of reaching consecutive Super Bowls are even higher.
Optics and history—Manning gets both. If he wins this Super Bowl, it's likely a significant number of media and others will say he's the best ever (I think it's John Elway or Tom Brady, but I digress). He'd go out on a super high. It would be almost impossible to duplicate.
If he loses, there will still be people who will give him massive credit for just getting here. Again, hard to top.
Come back for one more season, and that's more risk on a body that will be 38 years old in March. With no guarantee that he would get back to the Super Bowl. If he did come back and somehow got hurt or didn't make the Super Bowl or even the playoffs (not unprecedented), his legacy would take a hit.
Again, I think Manning has thought all of this through. I think he's already weighed all of the factors and this offseason's medical exam that reportedly is a determining factor isn't one.
I think Manning is gone. I think the decision has already been made.
Win or lose, he rides off into the sunset. On a bronco. As a Bronco.
2. Players love watching Manning, too
I've heard opposing players from around the NFL talk about Manning like he's some sort of god. In private. To me alone. Then, when asked about him publicly, they give a vanilla quotation, so as not to appear as if they wouldn't smash him if they got the chance.
This quote from Seattle's Michael Bennett was different.
"Peyton Manning, he's one of the best quarterbacks," Bennett said. "I’m lucky to be in my generation, watching him play. There’s no better quarterback in this generation. The completions he’s made, the touchdowns he’s thrown—I’m a fan of him, just like anybody else in the NFL, and he’s one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time."
3. John Elway's influence
I've written about John Elway's influence as a leader of the Broncos in his role as vice president of football operations. His preseason tirade to his team, as reported by Fox's Mike Garafolo, only solidifies my thinking. There are few general managers in football who could pull off a speech like that. Elway could because he was a former player—a great, elite player. The Broncos knew he had the credibility to give such a speech, and Elway knew it was needed. Another reason he's been so impressive as an executive.
4. Seahawks won't be partying?
This, from a Seattle player: "I can tell you most of us are not here to party. I can't speak for the whole team but most of us. No strippers for us. No craziness. No parties. No staying out late. This is a business trip for us. No sex for me the entire week. That's how serious I am."
That's pretty serious.
And a whole week?
Now that's discipline.
5. Marshawn needed to talk
First, few people in the sport believe Marshawn Lynch is a bad guy. They simply believe he's staked out this position of refusing to talk to the media—or doing it in limited fashion—and won't change because a bunch of people tell him to.
The problem with Lynch's stance is everyone around him. All of his teammates talked for the totality of media time. Manning has answered the legacy question about a billion times this week. Still, he's there. Doing the media thing.
The question Lynch needs to ask himself is: What makes him so different?
6. Players don't care about the weather
The cold will be an issue, but not as much of one as the media makes it out to be. Most players have played in worse.
“Two years ago in New England, (our) playoff game," Champ Bailey said. "Probably the coldest game I’ve played in. I’ve played in some bad snow before, but that probably was the coldest game I’ve played. I want to say two or three degrees, wind chill below zero—it was pretty cold."
Any special preparation?
“Not really," Bailey said. "I think once you’re out there, you just deal with it. It is what it is. Everybody has to deal with it. Suck it up for three hours and make it happen.”
"I remember we played the Jets one time in 2007, later in the year, low-scoring game," Wes Welker said. "It was tough. We had another one in Buffalo where we had 70 mph winds. They had to take a rope and pull the field-goal post back upright so that we could kick extra points and field goals and different things like that. I remember the receivers, we would just rotate and we would be throwing each other jackets. There would only be one receiver in the game because we really couldn't throw the ball. Just basically, ‘Here, you take my jacket. Now you get over here and get warm. I'll go in this play.’ We would rotate three of us the whole game.”
The players will adapt. It's what they do.
This stat from ESPN's Trey Wingo is interesting:
How the Broncos offense has evolved: in 2013 regular season their average TD drive was 3:00 long and 7 plays. Playoffs? 6:14 long 12 plays— trey wingo (@wingoz) January 27, 2014
There are several factors for this. One is, the Broncos are playing better defenses in the playoffs. Those same defenses are also daring the Broncos to run.
But it's also an indicator, to me, of a deliberate effort to make Denver more varied offensively. They wanted to present more threats to defenses than just Manning and the passing game. They succeeded, and now that offense has a legitimate running game that must be accounted for.
8. Pro Bowl
It was actually…good. Entertaining. Easily the most physical one in maybe 20 to 30 years. We have to give the NFL credit. The extra emphasis on the game changed the tenor of it.
There's just one problem: It might now be too physical. I've already heard from some assistant coaches and players how if it's going to be hard-hitting like that, then coaches won't want players being in it. And that's the irony of having a Pro Bowl that actually works.
9. "Us little people, we take a lot of pride"
This quote is maybe the best of the week. It's Seattle's Golden Tate when asked if, after first meeting quarterback Russell Wilson, he was skeptical Wilson could be a good quarterback:
"I definitely thought he was smaller than other quarterbacks, but I’m smaller than most receivers, so I can feel him," Tate said. "Us little people, we take a lot of pride, so I had no doubt that he could do it. He’s proven every single day, every single week that he can. He’s a great player. I’m happy for him (and I’m) growing with him.
"To help carry a team to a Super Bowl as a second-year player and be minutes away or 30 seconds away from an NFC Championship last year, that says a lot about him. I’m excited for him. He’s just going to keep getting better because mentally, he never feels like he has it. He’s chasing greatness, and that’s something that I feel like is contagious. Guys see that. You see it’s possible to get better every single day, and I think that’s one thing—that even though we’re at the last game of the season, we’re working every day to get better."
10. Medicinal pot in the NFL will happen
It's only a matter of time. At the Super Bowl Media Day, the subject came up again. This time it was Pete Carroll who, while not saying pot should be used in the NFL, came damn close.
"I would say that we have to explore and find ways to make our game a better game and take care of our players in whatever way possible," Carroll said. "Regardless of what other stigmas might be involved, we have to do this because the world of medicine is doing this."
This will happen because both the players want it to happen and an increasing number of teams—and their medical personnel—want it to. Pot eases the brutality of football. There are a number of issues to work around, but the challenges are becoming less and less.
Make all the jokes you want, but pot use in the NFL for medicinal purposes will happen. Only a matter of time.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.