The most trying season of Peyton Manning's storied career could end up being his most rewarding. After 18 years in the NFL, it might also be his last.
For Cam Newton, his breakout fifth season may have signaled he's ready to take the torch from a guy like Manning and become one of the league's next great quarterbacks.
Though the imposing defenses of Manning's Denver Broncos and Newton's Carolina Panthers expect to play significant roles, the outcome of Super Bowl 50 could very well be determined by two stars - drafted No. 1 overall 13 years apart - at the opposite ends of their careers on Feb. 7 in Santa Clara, California.
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"Oh, wow," said Newton, who turns 27 in May. "Playing 'The Sheriff.'"
It's a nickname Manning has quietly carried for years and is probably accurate. He's ruled the NFL for almost two decades and is its only five-time MVP. Less than two months shy of 40, he'll be the oldest quarterback to start a Super Bowl while trying to become the first starting signal-caller to win the Lombardi Trophy with two teams.
"The big thing is we've got to win," said John Elway, the Broncos' general manager and executive vice president of football operations who quarterbacked the franchise to its only Super Bowl titles after the 1997 and '98 seasons. "It's going to be a tremendous add to Peyton's legacy, but also the Broncos' legacy, too."
Leading Denver to a record-tying eighth Super Bowl appearance, Manning said recently "I'd be lying if I said I'm not thinking about" this being his final season. When he greeted New England coach Bill Belichick at midfield after a 20-18 win in the AFC championship game, he was overheard saying "hey listen, this might be my last rodeo."
Perhaps that's why it was important for not only Manning to get back to the league's biggest game for a fourth time, but for his teammates to help get him there.
He was named MVP when Indianapolis beat Chicago in the Super Bowl following the '06 season, but he threw two touchdowns and three interceptions while losing his next two trips. His first with Denver two years ago was an embarrassing 43-8 loss to Seattle.
"I wanted to do it for Peyton," said linebacker Von Miller, who recorded 2 1/2 sacks and an interception in the conference title game.
Evening his Super Bowl record would be tremendously gratifying for Manning, who has endured plenty during a maddening 2015 campaign.
He was sidelined six weeks with a series of injuries, relegated to backup duty for the first time in his career and has vehemently denied a report linking him to the banned drug HGH that the league is currently investigating. Manning's nine touchdown passes and 67.9 passer rating through 10 regular-season games were also career lows, and the 17 interceptions were his most in four seasons with Denver.
An ailing body has prevented him from unleashing the deep ball like he once did, but he's just as prepared and intelligent while serving as more of a game manager.
"My role has been different and my contributions are different," said Manning, who threw two touchdowns against New England and hasn't been picked off in the postseason.
"But I'm fortunate and grateful that I have the opportunity to contribute still, in some way. And it's a great honor to be going back to the Super Bowl."
And one Manning's teammates appear ready to do anything for him to win.
"God couldn't have written the story any better for Peyton," defensive back Chris Harris Jr. said. "He gets hurt. Then they said he got HGH. And he loses his spot. He comes back. We're on our way to the Super Bowl. I can see a beautiful ending for Peyton."
A Panthers defense that led the NFL with 39 takeaways and forced seven of its nine postseason turnovers in a 49-15 rout of Arizona in the NFC title game might have something to say about that.
So too should Newton, the ringleader and catalyst of a team that lost once in the regular season and outscored Seattle and Arizona 55-7 in the first half during these playoffs. Carolina lost in its only other Super Bowl appearance, 32-29 to New England after the 2003 season.
"I keep saying it: We're not finished. We're not finished," Newton said.
The favorite to win his first MVP award, Newton went 30-31-1 in four seasons before setting career highs for touchdown passes (35) and passer rating (99.4). The 6-foot-5, 245-pound former Heisman Trophy winner threw a career-low 10 interceptions and rushed for 636 yards and 10 touchdowns.
"Super unique," Denver defensive back Aqib Talib said. "I've never seen anybody who is that size. He can sit in the pocket and throw it, and then he can run, run wide out. He probably could play any position in the NFL that you wanted to.
"He's definitely a unique player."
That's high praise coming from a member of a defense that led the NFL in average yards allowed (283.2), sacks (52), has yielded 34 points and 568 total yards in two playoff games, and hit Tom Brady 23 times in the conference title game.
Discipline might be the key to stopping Newton, who threw for 335 yards with two touchdowns and a pick and also rushed for 47 and two scores against the Cardinals.
"You can't rush timid because if you do that, he's one of those pocket quarterbacks that can get the ball deep down the field," said Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware, who has 1 1/2 sacks in the postseason. "You have to be able to get pressure on him, but you have to be decisive on how you're rushing. You can't be a wild rusher."
Newton threw two touchdowns but was intercepted twice and sacked seven times while Manning totaled 301 yards through the air to win their only previous meeting, 36-14 at Carolina on Nov. 11, 2012.
Newton's supporting cast, however, is more refined this time around.
Tight end Greg Olsen had a career-high 1,104 receiving yards in 2015 and has 190 with a touchdown on 12 catches in the playoffs. Jonathan Stewart has averaged 5.0 yards per carry while gaining 189 and scoring twice in the postseason.
Luke Kuechly led Carolina with 118 tackles and fellow Pro Bowl linebacker Thomas Davis (105) is expected to play despite undergoing surgery on a broken forearm. In his fourth season, Josh Norman has blossomed into one of the NFL's top lockdown corners.
"Do what you've done," said Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who won a Super Bowl as a player 30 years ago with the Bears. "Some of my experiences in coaching, you get to certain experiences like the playoffs, and sometimes you get a little bit of panic. Am I doing enough? Should I do more? Should I change this?
"I told our coordinators, 'We're going to stick to what got us to where we are.' We'll emphasize that to the players and make sure we keep our personality."
While Miller and Ware anchor Denver's stout defense, the Broncos likely need to get going with a ground game that's averaged 3.6 yards per carry and totaled 129 in the playoffs. Including the postseason, however, Carolina has allowed an average of 73 rushing yards in the last four games.
Manning also would like to get Demaryius Thomas more involved considering the sixth-year receiver has just six catches for 52 yards in this postseason. He caught nine for 135 against the Panthers in 2012.
After failing to win their last two trips to the Super Bowl, the Broncos also aren't satisfied with just getting there.
"You're the AFC champion, but now, to me, it's like what have you done for me lately?" Ware said. "I'm looking forward to the next game."