NEW YORK (Reuters) - With his southern drawl and self-deprecating humor, Peyton Manning looks and sounds like a man at ease in his role as the poster-boy for Sunday’s Super Bowl between his Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks.
A model of composure on and off the field, the Broncos quarterback appears to all the world to be unruffled by the hype and scrutiny surrounding him ahead of America’s most-watched and scrutinized sports event.
But his easygoing, Louisiana demeanor is misleading. Despite having already achieved virtually every honor in the National Football League, no player will be under more pressure in the Super Bowl than Manning.
With four Most Valuable Player awards and one Super Bowl ring already in his keeping, Manning’s place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is just a formality but this game, more than any other, could determine his legacy.
With a victory, the meticulous planner and master tactician could go down as the greatest quarterback the NFL has seen. But a loss could raise more questions about his postseason record, with one title from 13 trips to the playoffs.
At 37, time is running out for Manning to add a second Super Bowl to the one he captured with the Indianapolis Colts seven years ago.
He played in a second Super Bowl with the Colts three years later but lost and is now attempting to become the first quarterback to win a NFL championship with two different teams.
“The Super Bowl, it’s a big deal,” he told reporters.
“I know how hard it is to get here. I know how much time and sacrifice our team has made in order to have this opportunity to play in this game.”
It wasn’t long ago that Manning looked as though he may never get another opportunity to get his hands on the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
His long association with Indianapolis ended two years ago when he missed the entire 2011 season because of a neck injury that needed surgery and threatened to end his career.
He was released by the Colts and the Broncos splashed out to sign him after he was given medical clearance to play again.
Manning’s first year with Denver ended in disappointment. After finishing the regular season with the best record in the AFC, the Broncos lost in the divisional round of the playoffs to the eventual champion Baltimore Ravens in double overtime.
This season, Manning produced arguably the finest year of his career, setting a whole bunch of records, including the most touchdown passes in a single season.
The Broncos again finished with the best record in the AFC but unlike last time, they held their nerve in the playoffs to reach the Super Bowl and Denver head coach John Fox said Manning deserved a lot of the credit.
“I’ve been blessed to be around a lot of great players and he obviously is one of them. In my opinion, no question, a first-ballot Hall of Famer in some point,” Fox said.
”He’s a tremendous, tremendous player as well as a guy, as far as what he went through. It’s a pretty different injury that he experienced.
“To work back and to learn a new offense, learn a new football team, learn a new city and two years later be in the Super Bowl is pretty incredible.”
By a twist of fate, the venue for Sunday’s Super Bowl - the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey - offers Manning a unique chance to square a family ledger.
Manning’s younger brother Eli, the quarterback for the New York Giants, has won two Super Bowls. His second came two years ago in Indianapolis, in the same season which Peyton sat out.
Peyton watched the game from the sideline with his father Archie, himself a former NFL quarterback, and now gets the chance to turn the tables and win in the stadium where Eli’s Giants play.
“Eli and I have talked about playing in this stadium,” Peyton said.
“Eli has been always helpful to me for many reasons. I’ve talked to him a number of times these past couple of weeks, and he is excited for me. I’ve always appreciated his help and support.”
While a win on Sunday would cap an incredible career for Manning and present him with the perfect chance to exit the game on the ultimate high, he said retirement was not in his plans.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
Editing by Frank Pingue