JERSEY CITY - This would have been a cool story line: The superstar with a Hall of Fame resume decides he's had enough and lives the dream by walking away after winning a championship.
It's all right there for Peyton Manning.
Only it isn't.
The Broncos' 37-year-old quarterback has that rare opportunity to head into his NFL sunset after winning the Super Bowl, matching another Broncos quarterback, John Elway, who did just that after winning a second straight title 15 years ago.
Michael Strahan left the Giants after his Super Bowl victory six years ago. The Steelers' Jerome Bettis did it two years before that. Just last year, Ray Lewis ended his Hall of Fame career in Baltimore with a Super Bowl ring to match the one he got after the 2000 season.
But Manning sounds very much like a man who still has plenty of football left in his body and his mind. Just 21/2 years after undergoing a fourth surgical procedure on his neck, he has a chance to reach the pinnacle of his sport for a second time, which offers about as perfect a potential ending as there is.
But Manning doesn't seem interested.
Shortly after his arrival late Sunday afternoon at the team hotel, I asked him if he ever considered that this might be his last game, and whether there is something to the notion of going out on top. But rather than offer the kind of noncommittal answer he has provided in the past -- you know, the "one year at a time'' and "I'll get to that in the offseason'' stuff -- he provided the most definitive answer yet that he wants to keep playing.
Which is good for him.
And even better for us, because we'll get to see the continuation of one of history's most remarkable sports careers.
"I know there's a number of players that have walked away as champions, and I'm sure that's a great feeling for those people," he said. "John Elway. Ray Lewis did it last year. Michael Strahan."
Manning, it turns out, has consulted some of those people, and they've helped him realize that his time is not up yet.
"In talking to Ray Lewis and in talking to John Elway, they couldn't play anymore," he said. "That was all they had to give. They truly left it all out there."
Two years into his incredible comeback -- and after a painful, if inevitable, breakup with the Colts -- Manning has looked into himself and believes he has more to give.
"I certainly had a career change two years ago with my injury, with changing teams, and so I truly have been kind of a 'one-year-at-a-time' basis," he said. "So I really have no plans beyond this game, had no plans coming into this season beyond this year. I think that's the healthy way to approach your career at this stage."
But . . .
"I still enjoy playing football," said Manning, who set NFL records with 55 touchdown passes and 5,477 passing yards during the regular season. "I feel a little better than I thought I would at this point coming off that surgery. I still enjoy the preparation part of it, the work part of it."
And that's the difference. Talk to any football player considering retirement and he'll tell you that he still loves playing on Sundays. It's the Monday-through-Saturday part that they no longer can tolerate.
"Everybody enjoys the games, everybody's going to be excited to play in a Super Bowl," Manning said. "But I think when you still enjoy the preparation and the work part of it, I think you probably still ought to be doing that. I think as soon as I stop enjoying it, if I can't produce, if I can't help the team, that's when I'll stop playing. If that's next year, maybe it is."
It doesn't sound that way, though. Manning ended his answer with the sentence that makes you believe Super Bowl XLVIII is not the last we'll see of him: "I certainly want to continue to keep playing."
It's what every Broncos fan wants to hear. And every fan of every other team, too. After all, the NFL is a better league when Manning is in it. And it sounds as if one of the greatest quarterbacks in history has some more time left.