SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Olivia Manning was standing tall under the falling confetti, staring up at the platform and the triumphant sight of one of her three sons, Peyton. She was trying to stay out of the way, as usual, trying to blend into a night that nobody in her famous football family will ever forget.
But there was no hiding in the aftermath of Super Bowl 50, no way for her to remain faceless even as the gold confetti landed softly around her hair and shoulders. Her husband Archie always answers the questions about Peyton and Eli and their conquests and failures, because he was the dazzling college and pro quarterback and she was the homecoming queen.
This night was different. Olivia Manning had spent one lifetime watching her husband get battered on the football field, and another watching her middle and youngest sons absorb their fair share of abuse. As a mother who had watched Peyton endure 18 seasons of hits, not to mention four neck surgeries that left him unable to throw a 10-yard lob, she was the right person to ask whether Peyton, now the 39-year-old two-time champ, should end his epic career right then and there.
"I would like for Peyton to retire, I would," she told ESPN.com and The Los Angeles Times. When asked why, Olivia said, "Well, we're on top, and physically I just don't think it's worth going on. You won a Super Bowl. That's the best way to go out."
And so what if Peyton Manning goes out with a second Super Bowl title while throwing for 141 yards, no touchdowns and one interception? He has spent so many years carrying Indianapolis Colts and Broncos teams with his incomparable arm and his brain. In what will almost certainly be Manning's final season, it was high time for a team to carry him.
Von Miller was the Super Bowl MVP because No. 58 reminded everyone how No. 56, Lawrence Taylor, used to play this game. Miller and the rest of Denver's defense knocked around the league MVP, Cam Newton, the same way they'd knocked around a far more stationary target, Tom Brady, in the AFC Championship Game.
That's OK. Just as John Elway needed Mike Shanahan to deliver him Terrell Davis at the end of Elway's career, Peyton Manning needed Elway to deliver him this defense at the end of his.
As he stood against a wall near the locker room, his face a brew of relief and sheer exhaustion, Archie Manning said the Panthers had no idea that the Denver defense was playing like the defense Ron Rivera once suited up for in Chicago.
"I don't think they thought they could lose this game," Archie said. "I think they were shocked."
Just not as shocked as the Mannings were that Peyton would ever benefit from the magic being created by Miller, DeMarcus Ware and the rest. The quarterback had a badly injured foot and a dead arm when he was replaced by Brock Osweiler in that Kansas City game in November.
"I didn't think he was going to play again," Archie said.
But against all odds, Manning got relatively healthy and replaced Osweiler in the regular-season finale against San Diego. Archie said his son's first victory out of the bullpen, giving the Broncos the top seed instead of the fifth, was one of the biggest victories of Peyton's career.
Just not half as big as this one over Newton and the Panthers, the 200th victory of Peyton's career, postseason included, of course.
Archie, Olivia, Eli and oldest son Cooper all watched from a suite on the seventh level of the stadium.
"It was quiet and it was a lot of fingernail biting and, 'Do not move, that's our lucky chair,' " Cooper said. "And a lot of holding on for dear life. That's what we were doing."
On cue, Archie was a complete mess. "He was kind of still," Cooper said. "But when we got down inside seven minutes he was having a hard time watching."
He had his reasons. Peyton had carried some heavy postseason luggage into Levi's Stadium, much of it weighed down by his nine one-and-done exits and 13-13 overall record. Yes, he beat Tom Brady in their last three meetings in AFC title games. No, people weren't about to accept that fact as reason to forget Brady's defining 4-1 advantage in Super Bowl rings.
"There's still nothing wrong with being 2-2 in Super Bowls," Archie said, "instead of 1-3."
Peyton started the game with the worst regular-season statistics a starting Super Bowl quarterback ever had, and ended it by becoming the first to win it for two franchises and by replacing his boss, Elway, as the oldest to win the big one. It's one of the greatest Super Bowl stories of them all, right there with Joe Willie Namath upsetting the Colts, Doug Williams knocking down some walls, Steve Young exorcising the ghost of Joe Montana, Elway winning back-to-back titles to close out his career, Brady's Patriots upsetting the high-flying Rams, and Eli's Giants upsetting Brady's 18-0 Patriots.
After averaging 32.1 touchdowns over 16 seasons, Peyton threw nine this season against 17 interceptions. He'd been asked to take a $10 million pay cut after his preferred coaches (John Fox and Adam Gase) were shown the door (Manning negotiated it down to the $4 million he earned back by winning the conference and Super Bowl titles), and he was asked to make it work with a Gary Kubiak offense better suited for Osweiler. On top of all that, and the injuries, Manning had to face the Al Jazeera report of human growth hormone allegedly shipped from an anti-aging clinic to his home, under his wife's name, a report the quarterback has denounced as the league investigates.
So that's why the Mannings wanted this Sunday like they've never wanted any Sunday. Asked how badly she needed this second ring for Peyton, his mother said, "Oh my goodness, I guess more than I've ever wanted any of them. I don't know, just because he's been through a lot."
Olivia talked about the lucky seats in the family box, and how Eli sat behind her, nobody allowed to move a muscle. "Pretty incredible," she said. "I don't think I've ever experienced anything quite like it."
The first snap of the game announced to the world this wasn't going to be a repeat of the Denver-Seattle Super Bowl from two years ago, when the Seahawks pounded the Broncos so mercilessly that Archie stood outside the locker room and said, "That's why I hate football." On that night, Denver center Manny Ramirez opened the game by snapping the ball over Manning's head, giving Seattle the safety and a 2-0 lead that inspired the onslaught.
But on the first play from scrimmage against Carolina, Manning fielded a clean snap from Matt Paradis, stood firm as his teammates picked up the blitz, and found Owen Daniels for 18 yards. Manning threw with confidence and precision on the drive, and it wasn't of great consequence that the Broncos ended up with only a field goal; the quarterback had settled into a game that some thought had Panthers blowout written all over it, and that was more important than anything.
It was an ugly game with ugly stats from Manning and Newton. Von Miller vs. Kony Ealy turned out to be the marquee matchup.
And absolutely nobody on the Manning side cared about the box score, or the fact that Peyton's highlight came in the form of a two-point conversion pass.
Archie spoke of the supreme calm his son had shown all week. He spoke of all the things Peyton needed to overcome.
"He had to take off during the season, which he's never done before," Archie said. "He had to run the scout team, which I don't think he's ever done. And he dressed out for a game as a backup, which I don't think he's ever done. But through it all, the best I could tell he remained a good team player and tried to make a contribution, and so the good Lord blessed him and let him get back out on the field."
Super Bowl 50 turned out to be the ultimate grind. The Manning patriarch laughed when he said he grew tired of hearing the announcers say the words "no gain" about 100 times. He said he would talk to Peyton about possible retirement this week, maybe next, and that he wouldn't try to tell his middle child what to do.
But in a quiet moment later, as he stood alone against that wall, Archie told ESPN.com, "I've got 200-something texts on my phone, a lot of friends, and everybody wants him to retire. Nine out of 10 people feel that way. This has kind of come to a head. A lot of things are pointing toward what everyone wants him to do."
Including Olivia Manning. If the family football narrative has always been about the men, this was one Sunday when mother knew best.