DENVER - There's really only one thing left for Peyton Manning to accomplish.
After all the regular-season brilliance -- and there has been so much of that, particularly with his record-setting numbers this season -- it comes down to what happens now . . . when the numbers he confronts aren't the ones that signify his grandeur but the ones that signify his weakness.
Manning is one thing in the regular season and often quite another in the postseason. Yes, there is a Super Bowl championship on a long list of accomplishments. But there also is a 9-11 playoff record that you simply can't ignore.
It is his albatross, and no matter how many magnificent moments there are in the regular season, no matter how many MVP titles he collects -- he no doubt will add a fifth to his trophy case shortly -- the lack of multiple Super Bowl wins also is central to his legacy.
So really, this is all about what happens in the coming weeks. Or so Manning hopes, because if he's playing three weeks from Sunday, it means he will be in position to add a second Super Bowl title to his resume.
Another loss before then -- especially if it happens Sunday against the Chargers in the divisional round -- would represent another unfortunate moment in a postseason career that already has been filled with them.
Manning's 11 playoff losses tie him with Brett Favre, and his next one -- if there is a next one -- would set an NFL record Manning wants no part of.
Manning, 37, said this past week that he is trying to take the time to enjoy the journey more than in years past, knowing that his career will reach its conclusion in the not-too-distant future. He doesn't want to retire yet, because he still adores playing the game and because he still is so darn good at it. But these playoff losses are soul-crushing moments for him, and it's hard to imagine him dealing with many more of them.
So he tries as hard as he cannot to let the outside noise filter in, even though he knows the noise is out there. He knows better than anyone what these playoffs mean. Another year without a Super Bowl would mean another year of emptiness.
There was a painful exit last season when the Ravens stunned the Broncos in overtime, even though Manning did enough to win. Still, his two interceptions didn't help, and Joe Flacco's day of perfection sent the Ravens to an eventual Super Bowl journey.
Manning's only Super Bowl win came with the Colts after the 2006 season, when he beat Rex Grossman's Bears to reach the pinnacle of NFL success. But he hasn't won one since. Younger brother Eli has won two since then, the second of which was in Indianapolis, where Peyton still was healing from four neck surgeries.
How fitting, then, that Peyton can match his brother in Eli's home stadium three weeks hence. Get past the Chargers, beat the Patriots or Colts in the AFC Championship Game to earn a shot at another title, and Manning's playoff legacy can improve tenfold.
Lose any time before that, and the questions about his postseason performance will persist.
For now, Manning will do his best to try to enjoy the moment and deal with the questions that inevitably come his way.
Such as the one about putting too much pressure on himself in these games. It came up this past week at his news conference, and Manning joked to those in attendance who may not have been working when he came into the league in 1998.
"I guess everybody has a different theory or analysis,'' he said. "A lot of you [reporters] weren't even probably working since I've been playing in the playoffs. Some of you others, you all look a lot younger than that. I don't believe that to be true. I've always enjoyed it and I felt fortunate to be in every opportunity when you get a chance to play in the postseason. Obviously, if you keep advancing, it's exciting. That is what you're looking forward to trying to do.''
Manning hopes that will be the case Sunday, even if history suggests it's not a given. He knows that history judges players on championships, and he also knows that one is not nearly enough to get into the conversation with fellow quarterbacks such as Joe Montana and Tom Brady, who have seven titles between them. Manning's boss, Broncos vice president of operations John Elway, has two titles after suffering the pain of three Super Bowl losses.
When it comes to Super Bowls, a quarterback needs to have multiple rings to be in the conversation of the greatest playoff performer of all time. Manning is desperately seeking that second ring, because he knows it means so much to his otherwise unparalleled legacy.