SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Here was Peyton Manning on the stage that had been set up at around the 10-yard line at Levi's Stadium, the Lombardi Trophy in his hand, after this night when you occasionally thought that he might have been able to throw that trophy farther and more accurately than he had some of his passes. But none of that mattered in the end. Manning's team had won, and that is all that really matters to a quarterback, especially one with a right to think he is the best to ever play this game.
Now the last pass of Super Bowl 50 for Peyton Manning was going to be the best of this night, because in front of the whole world he was going to pass on giving us the ending that people not only want from him, but are practically demanding:
He wasn't going to retire. He wasn't going to say goodbye, at least not yet. At the end of an imperfect game from him, it was merely perfect.
The media doesn't get to decide what's best for Peyton Manning. Even his family doesn't get to decide. He gets to decide, even if that doesn't fit the narrative that we like best for him. If he's earned anything across his extraordinary and honorable football life, it is that. The idea that this is our call and not his is dumber than the last Republican debate.
So he didn't retire on the field when Jim Nantz asked him if he wanted to. Peyton didn't retire in his other postgame interviews. He sure didn't retire on "Good Morning, America." Good for him.
"I'm very much at peace right now and I think, however it works out, it'll work out the way it's supposed to," he said Monday morning.
Of course everybody likes the story the way it worked out Sunday night, with the Broncos beating the Panthers and Peyton getting his second Super Bowl six weeks from his 40th birthday, coming back from one more injury, coming off the bench at the end of the regular season. And so what that the quarterback who has produced more offense than anybody to ever play his position had won because of defense in Santa Clara?
This was the ending that everybody wanted: Great win, now get out.
Manning had told Bill Belichick after the AFC Championship game that this might be his "last rodeo." Clearly Manning didn't have the arm he once had. After all the touchdown passes he had thrown for the Colts and the Broncos, now he could barely do that. In his own words, he was an aging pitcher working the corners.
But even as he did that, as far away from his prime as he was, you saw something with Peyton Manning: How much he still loved being out there, even now; how much he loved playing the game even though he didn't have the game he once did.
There was a time at the end of Bill Bradley's career with the Knicks when I asked him what it was like for him to still be playing on the great stage of his youth, at Madison Square Garden, where he and the old Knicks had produced that team's glory years, but so often it looked as if he were just hanging on.
"I wouldn't have missed this experience for anything," Bradley said. "I would have always regretted not knowing what it was like to complete the circle."
Maybe the smart play is for Manning to walk away now so that when he is 59 (Joe Montana's age) instead of 39, he isn't the one talking about all the surgeries he's had on a knee he can no longer straighten, and neck problems, and arthritis, and even a wandering eye. Maybe there will be an announcement about that this week, or next week, or next month that Manning has played his last game. But if Peyton Manning wants to keep playing, in Denver or someplace else, if he thinks his arm might be stronger next season than it was this season, then he absolutely ought to play. Because his sport will still be so much better and interesting with him in it.
This is what he said in the first few moments after Super Bowl 50 on CBS to Nantz:
"I got some good advice from Tony Dungy, who's going into the Hall of Fame and my old coach and he said, 'Don't make an emotional decision.'"
Everybody wanted Michael Jordan to walk away after his last title with the Bulls. Jordan eventually came back and played two seasons with the Wizards. And when he was 40, he averaged exactly 20.0 points in what turned out to be his last rodeo. He completed his own circle that way, whether he left with one more title or not.
Peyton has the right to do the same, even as he is almost being ordered by media people who obviously know what's right for him to put down the Lombardi Trophy and get off the stage, for good.
"I don't think he was physically ready to start the season," Archie Manning told me when Peyton was on the sideline with a bad foot, and we wondered whether he would ever play again. "But players want to play."
For all of the talk about what a shot case Peyton has become -- and as spectacular as the Broncos' defense was in the playoffs -- somehow the older of Archie's Super Bowl sons made enough plays for his team to win it all. In the process, he left Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady -- that's six Super Bowl titles -- and Cam Newton, the MVP of the league this season, in his dust.
As soon as he did, he was told to get lost. The ones telling him to do that are the ones who should get lost. His call, not theirs. And not ours. It never is.
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Mike Lupica is a columnist for Sports on Earth and the New York Daily News. Read his full bio here.