SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The best thing for Peyton Manning is that he won the Super Bowl.
A close second — he never has to lace 'em up again.
Constantly harassed, never quite comfortable — sort of the way the whole season has played out — Manning walked away with his second Super Bowl title Sunday night, after Denver's defense all but handed him the Lombardi Trophy in a 24-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers.
Manning wouldn't budge on whether this was, in fact, his last game.
"I got some good advice from Tony Dungy," Manning said of the first of four coaches with whom he's been to the Super Bowl. "He said, 'Don't make an emotional decision.' This has been an emotional week, an emotional night. I'm going to take some time to reflect."
If he bothers looking back to his last game, he'll see a quarterback who looked all of his 39 years and more.
He was creaky, off-target at times. He got bamboozled into his first interception of this year's playoffs and could've thrown a few more had the Panthers' defenders had better hands. Manning lost a fumble, as well.
His most important throw? Might have been the pass that flew 10 yards out of the end zone but drew a defensive holding call that set up the game-clinching touchdown. He completed 13 passes for 141 yards and got the Broncos moving to start both halves.
That was plenty. Those small wisps of offense set up a few field goals, kept the Broncos in good field position — then allowed No. 18 and Co. to clear the way for a smothering, historically good defense that won the game with seven sacks and four turnovers.
Manning became the first quarterback to win the Super Bowl with two franchises. He joined his brother, Eli, and 10 other quarterbacks as multiple Super Bowl winners. He's been taking it week by week this year, insisting he's not thinking about what he'll do after the season. Now that it's over, he'll have to decide whether he wants to walk away on top — same as his boss, John Elway, did after he won his second title back in 1999.
After his final win, Elway took some time to reflect and admitted to himself that he couldn't grind another year.
Smart money has Manning making the same choice.
"He's gone through a tough year with all the injuries and the other things that have gone on," Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas said.
Yes, it was a tough year — and nothing anyone could've envisioned when Elway signed him four years ago.
Manning spent the first three of those years rewriting the record book. In Year 4, he missed six games with an injured foot, then came back as a diminished game manager.
But he didn't shirk from that role.
He won with a Super Bowl passer rating of 56.6 that, unbelievably, wasn't that much lower than what he compiled this season.
He won by handing off a lot. The Broncos ran 28 times, including on third-and-9 late in this game while nursing a lead. That never would have happened in earlier in his 18-year career. Denver's 11 first downs were the same as Manning would've racked up in a quarter a few years back.
"This game was much like the season has been," Manning said. "It tested our toughness, our resilience, our unselfishness."
A game like this that would normally send him scurrying to the film room, trying to figure out how to make things better for next week.
Next week doesn't matter. Next year might not either.
Ugly, but beautiful.
"You get asked a lot of questions," Manning said. "You reflect on the coaches, family members, friends who've helped you get to ... this point. I'm very grateful. "