SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The dirty secret about all Super Bowls is that ultimately they're just football games. Take away the halftime shows, the $25 glasses of wine, the tired commercials with tired celebrities doing tired lines, all of it, and these Super Bowls have to rise and fall on the games themselves. Last year, the Super Bowl seemed like the pinnacle of American popular culture because Left Shark and the dead Nationwide kid and all the other memes nestled themselves comfortably alongside a taut, terrific game between two all-time teams at the peak of their powers. Cap it off with one of the most infamous boneheaded play calls in the history of the sport at the end, against the most hated (and successful) team, and damn, that's entertainment.

That is not what happened this year.

This year is the game where your mom went to bed at halftime, the game where you started Photoshopping your Crying Jordan heads on Panthers' players' bodies midway through the third quarter, the game where Stephen Colbert spent most of his time worrying about his lead-in ratings. This happens, and you know, they used to be like this all the time. This is football just as much as the good stuff is. Frankly, this is probably more football than the good stuff.

The Denver Broncos won their third Super Bowl -- they're 3-5 -- which is sort of the lifetime Super Bowl record equivalent of Sunday's game. They earned a convincing 24-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers, a team that headed into Levi's Stadium looking like it might be one of the best NFL teams of the last couple decades but left scrambling toward the team bus under the desired cover of darkness. One of the most enjoyably brash teams in recent memory, a team that had the best offense in one of best offensive seasons in history, was shut down, shaken, hammered and flat defeated. Cam Newton is the best player in the NFL, who won the first MVP of what will be many in his career on Saturday night. He is just as poised to take over this league, and change so much of what football is and how it sees itself, over the next 10 years as he was before this game. He remains a superstar.

But he didn't stand a chance against Von Miller.

Miller, and the rest of the Broncos defense (but especially Miller), was otherworldly, not just this week but against the Patriots two weeks ago. The Panthers were able to put up a few yards -- 315, more than the Broncos' 194 -- but they, and Cam, looked notably rattled and jittery throughout. And why wouldn't they? The Broncos forced four turnovers, recovering one fumble for a touchdown, and every time the Panthers or Newton would show any life, Miller would do something amazing to extinguish any hope. Every time the Panthers would get any rhythm going, any time the game would get any rhythm going, Miller halted it in its tracks.

It was a dominating performance, the Broncos doing to another team what was essentially done to them in the Super Bowl two years ago. But it wasn't a particularly compelling performance, not to watch anyway. It was halting, and awkward, like watching a horse try to walk across ice.

Actually, now that I've said that, considering the awfulness of the turf at Levi's Stadium, it might have been exactly like that. The city of San Francisco may have rejected the madness and corporate tyranny of Super Bowl week, but once the action shifted to Santa Clara, everyone's mood lightened: It was a gorgeous day, the stadium gleamed and glistened, the traffic wasn't even all that bad. But that's easy for the rest of us here to say: We didn't have to try to pivot on that grass. Players were falling down throughout, and a missed kick by Carolina's Graham Gano seemed to be directly caused by the turf, which both teams complained about repeatedly. The only person who seemed able to secure any footing was Beyoncé.

It was just an odd, stumbling game throughout, which worked out great for the Broncos defense but didn't leave the Broncos immune. Which brings us to Peyton Manning.

The immediate takeaway from Sunday's game, the most lazily heartwarming one, is that Manning has "secured his legacy" by winning his second Super Bowl ring in what was (assuredly, right? Right?) his final game. I'm not sure about his legacy -- one suspects a certain ongoing investigation will have something to say about that as well -- but I can say that for most of this game, Manning looked like he had no business playing in an NFL football game.

Manning's final line was 13-for-23 for 141 yards, no touchdowns and one interception, and even though that's one of the worst quarterback lines in Super Bowl history -- winning team or losing team -- it was actually quite a bit worse than that. The only throws that Manning is physically capable of making are ones that that don't really do the Broncos much good, little six-yard outs when facing third-and-eight, those sort of things. Any pass downfield was asking for disaster, and any time Manning had to move in the pocket, your stomach got lodged in your throat. He was simply not anything resembling an actual NFL quarterback, and you're kidding yourself if you tell yourself otherwise. Denver didn't win this game because of Manning; it won in spite of him.

But don't listen to me on that. Listen to the Broncos. With six minutes left and the Broncos facing third-and-seven on their own 26-yard line, needing to get a first down to force the Panthers to start using their precious timeouts, Manning lined up in the shotgun, and I said to the person next to me, "There's a non-zero chance this is the last pass Manning ever throws." That's a pretty big deal, right? Manning, who has thrown more touchdowns than anyone else in the history of football, thrown for more passing yards than anyone else in history and thrown the second-most actual passes in the history of football, throwing his last pass ever, with a chance to win himself his second Super Bowl. In his final game.

But his coaches didn't trust him to do it. Manning handed the ball off. They didn't get the first down. It didn't matter. Manning didn't matter at all, all game. Manning became the first quarterback to win Super Bowls with multiple teams. But really, he was only just watching. Not to be sacrilegious here, but you'd have a hard time convincing me, all told, that the Broncos couldn't have done that with freaking Tim Tebow behind center.

(Manning did end up throwing one more pass, a two-point conversation to Bennie Fowler that secured the final score outcome. Manning reared back and threw his sharpest, most consistent deep ball of the night. His pass went three yards.)

I say all this not to disparage Manning, necessarily. He's an all-timer who deserves another championship as much anybody else, one supposes. But the idea that Manning "won" his team a title on Sunday, that this ring was somehow a product of his efforts, is narrative defeating reality.

Sunday's game was more like watching Barry Bonds' last at-bat be a pinch-hit groundout to the second baseman in a 9-1 clincher of a World Series sweep, or LeBron James finally winning a title for Cleveland at the age of 51, brought in off the bench for the last 35 seconds of an NBA Finals to dribble the clock out. Or, to use a real life example outside the world of sports, Orson Welles' last film appearance being in "Transformers: The Movie."

There's nothing wrong with that, not necessarily. Those at-bats and dribbles and animated robot movies still count, and they don't erase that 762, or being one of the best all-around players in NBA history, or "Citizen Kane." But they're not nearly as fun to watch either, no matter how much you might want them to be. There was no helicopter touchdown dive, no shot over Bryon Russell. It was just Manning, limping off, like so many football players before him, like all of us. It was the sort of night, the sort of Super Bowl, where you tried to tell yourself that what you were watching meant more than it did, that it lived up to everything you wanted it to be. But it didn't. Or at least nothing other than Beyoncé did.

Super Bowl 50 was supposed to be the biggest Super Bowl ever. Cam Newton was supposed to ascend to the next level of superstardom. Manning was supposed to give us one last memory. Instead, it was just a bunch of Broncos clobbering the living bejeezus out of a bunch of Panthers. That's all football is sometimes. It still counts. Ask all those drunk, partying, joyous Broncos fans, a signature NFL fan base grabbing their first title in nearly 20 years. Oh, does it ever still count.

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