Peyton Manning would love to go out a champion.
Just, not yet.
Riding off into the Super Bowl sunset with another ring might seem like the perfect ending to a record-breaking, highlight-filled career. But Manning's not ready to walk away from the game.
Even if his Denver Broncos beat the Seattle Seahawks next Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
"If I can't produce, if I can't help the team, that's when I'll stop playing," Manning said Sunday shortly after the AFC champions arrived at their hotel. "If that's next year, maybe it is, but I certainly want to continue to keep playing."
Who could blame him? Manning showed no signs of slowing down this season.
'I still enjoy playing football. ... I think when you still enjoy the preparation, I think you probably still ought to be doing that.' - Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning
At 37, he set NFL records with 55 touchdown passes and 5,447 yards while leading the league's top-ranked offence. Now, he's trying to become the first starting quarterback to win Super Bowls with two teams, an accomplishment that seemed a bit of a long shot after he had two career-threatening neck surgeries two years ago.
"I still enjoy playing football," Manning said. "I feel a little better than I thought I would at this point coming off that surgery, and I still enjoy the preparation part of it, the important part of it. Everybody enjoys the games, and everybody's going to be excited to play in the Super Bowl.
"But I think when you still enjoy the preparation, I think you probably still ought to be doing that."
So, unless Manning's neck, or his doctor, tells him he's had enough, he'll be back next season and maybe more. That's good news for the Broncos and bad news for opposing defences.
"Peyton's been extraordinary," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. "He's had the year that everyone would dream to have. People couldn't even dream to have the year that Peyton's had before this season with all the numbers. We're up against it."
Manning, at a news conference aboard the Cornucopia Majesty cruise ship docked outside the team hotel, insisted that this won't be some sort of victory lap to cap his career. Manning has spoken to John Elway, his boss in the Broncos' front office, who retired after winning the second of consecutive Super Bowls in 1999. He has also talked to former Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis, who walked away last year after the Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers.
They mentioned how great a feeling it is, being able to go out on top, but Manning noted that there is a major difference between their situations and his.
"In talking to Ray Lewis and in talking with John Elway, they couldn't play anymore," Manning said. "That was all they had to give, and they truly left it all out there. I certainly had a career change two years ago with my injury and changing teams, so I truly have been kind of on a one-year-at-a-time basis. So, I really have no plans beyond this game. I had no plans coming into this season beyond this year.
"I think that's the healthy way to approach your career at this stage."
John Fox will be participating in his second Super Bowl as a head coach, and first since his Carolina Panthers lost to the New England Patriots in the 2004 game. He was sidelined a month earlier this season after needing open-heart surgery, so he knows a few things about quick comebacks.
"Just like I tell players," he said, "sometimes setbacks are setups for better things to come."
And even he has been impressed by what Manning has been able to accomplish in two seasons with the Broncos.
"He's a tremendous, tremendous player as well as a guy, as far as what he went through," Fox said. "It's a pretty different injury that he experienced. To work back and to learn a new offence, learn a new football team, learn a new city and two years later be in the Super Bowl is pretty incredible.
'He loves being around the guys. ... He loves Sundays. You can just tell all of the aspects of the game he really enjoys.' - Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker on Manning
"I hope that's glowing enough."
For those who work with Manning every day, they have no doubt he still approaches the game with the enthusiasm of a youngster.
"Absolutely, you can just tell he enjoys it and he loves it," said wide receiver Wes Welker, wearing an eye-catching bright orange suit. "He loves being around the guys. He loves the game-planning. He loves Sundays. You can just tell all of the aspects of the game he really enjoys.
"It's great to see and it definitely inspires me as well."
Hundreds of bundled-up Broncos fans decked out in blue and orange greeted Manning and his teammates as they got off their bus outside the Hyatt Jersey City. It was about 25 degrees when they arrived, the type of frosty conditions they might have to deal with next Sunday in the first Super Bowl played outdoors in a cold-weather site.
Not that Manning is worried about checking the forecasts.
"In my two years, I think we have seen a lot as far as on-the-field situations, weather, crowd noise, you name it, with this team," Manning said. "So, I do feel comfortable."