The Retirement Party Poopers are heading to California on Sunday, intent on ruining what increasingly is feeling like the final game of Peyton Manning’s career and turning the page in NFL history from his era to their own.
“We don’t really care if this is his last game,” Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert told reporters this week. “He’s played what, 18, 19 years? He’s had enough, you know what I’m saying? It’s our turn.”
Manning owns just about every passing record in the NFL, already has won one Super Bowl and is making his fourth appearance in the game. For nearly two decades, he has been one of the faces of the league, on and off the field. Now, at 39, he will become the oldest quarterback to start a Super Bowl.
It’s the kind of narrative other Hall of Famers have enjoyed. John Elway, Jerome Bettis, Michael Strahan. They all won the Lombardi Trophy and headed into the sunset.
The Panthers, though, have no intention of allowing Manning’s career to end with a “happily ever after.”
Safety Tre Boston put it in terms that the Papa John’s spokesman might be able to understand a little better.
“So if a man has the last piece of pizza in the world, are you going to take that last piece?” Boston asked. “One of y’all got to live! One of us has to win, and I’m not trying to lose. It’s you and that one man. You gonna live or not? I’m trying to win. I don’t care who you are.”
The Panthers understand that many around the country are rooting for Manning to have his last triumph. Even though they are the strong favorite in Vegas, they pretty much have solidified their role as the unpopular spoiler with a quarterback who draws as much attention (and criticism) for his dancing as he does for leading the league in touchdowns. They are the mouthy, cocky, young bunch with a coach who embraces that personality.
They’ve also been the best team in the NFL all season and could be the first team in 30 years to go 18-1 and win a championship. That they could wind up being remembered as “the worst” of that select group — only three teams have lost one or zero games and won the title — fuels them and the perception that they are being overlooked, even in the narrative buildup to what could be their finest hour.
It’s all about Manning, an irresistible storyline even if he no longer is the engine for the team he quarterbacks.
So they arrive at the site of the biggest game of the year cast as the pro wrestling villain taking on the mythic hero right down to the black uniforms they are forced to wear (the Broncos chose white, perhaps knowing that the Panthers are 0-2 in their playoff history when wearing the dark hue).
Panthers coach Ron Rivera was asked if he thinks most of the people watching the game will be rooting for Manning.
“Probably, which is fine,” he said. “I’m kind of hoping there’s a whole bunch of Panther fans and Raiders fans that are thinking otherwise.”
Just to be safe, though, Rivera had the team practice with artificial noise in practices this week.
“We don’t know how the crowd is going to react to us,” he said.
Not all of the Panthers have been so disrespectful toward Manning.
Cornerback Josh Norman said he has so much respect for the quarterback that he plans on bowing to him . . . after he comes away with an interception.
”It’s probably going to be his last game. I know he wants to go out with a bang,” Norman said. “I’m rooting for him, but shoot, I want that ring. I’ll do everything I can to minimize what he likes to do, but at the same time, I respect the heck out of the guy. We’ll see what happens.”