SAN FRANCISCO -- Peyton Manning vs. Cam Newton -- man, it could have been something if only they were born around the same time. Go ahead and consider what defined the enduring sports rivalries of the past.
Ali and Frazier. Arnie and Jack. Russell and Chamberlain. Chrissie and Martina. Magic and Bird. The combatants were polar opposites in personality, appearance and approach, and yet a Super Bowl duel between a 39-year-old Manning and a 26-year-old Newton would have represented the beginnings of a rivalry that threatened to top them all.
Manning and Newton play the most visible position (by far) in their country's most visible game (by far), and other than the fact that they each have two arms, two legs and a history as the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, the quarterbacks have about as much in common as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
For that reason, their rivalry would have been a dream, decade-long pairing on Madison Avenue and beyond. But Manning turns 40 next month, and he most likely won't play any more football after his Denver Broncos face Newton's Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50. This means Manning and Newton are about to meet in the big game for the first and last time, and that stinks.
It really, really stinks.
So enjoy this four-hour spectacle inside Levi's Stadium, this one-and-done struggle between the newly minted MVP and the fading legend who has won the award a record five times. These aren't ideal circumstances, but chances are witnesses will be thankful they saw these two heavyweights performing in the same ring.
And this isn't going to be as ugly as an in-his-prime Larry Holmes battering a washed-up Muhammad Ali, or an in-his-prime Rocky Marciano knocking a washed-up Joe Louis through the Madison Square Garden ropes. Football isn't an individual sport, and as Manning and Newton have reminded anyone who has asked in the lead-up to the Super Bowl, they don't engage each other on the field. The quarterbacks are paid to worry about the pass-rushers and cover guys.
If anything, this cross-generational battle of greats reminds us a bit of the 1998 Masters, held a year after Tiger Woods introduced himself to the world by winning his first major title and smashing every Augusta National record in sight. Jack Nicklaus was 58 years old and playing on a deteriorating hip, and somehow he outplayed the 22-year-old Woods and damn near won his seventh green jacket.
Like Nicklaus, Manning already has been told by doctors that he will require hip replacement surgery. Like Woods, Newton plays a game with which the competition is not familiar, and he seems poised to dominate the field for a long time.
On the search for a football comparison to Manning-Newton, a fan of a certain age might journey back to the second half of Super Bowl III to find such a compelling contrast in quarterbacks. Broadway Joe Namath was the fresh, electrifying star of the New York Jets (Namath was 25 and in his fourth year; Newton is 26 and in his fifth), and Johnny Unitas was the 35-year-old relief pitcher with a bad arm who had replaced Earl Morrall in a futile attempt to save the heavily favored Baltimore Colts.
But here's the difference: Unitas recovered from that devastating defeat to win another Super Bowl, and Manning isn't going to get a do-over. This is his last shot to become the first quarterback to win Super Bowls for two franchises, and his last shot to pull even with the intra-family lord of the rings, kid brother Eli.
Manning has acknowledged he isn't the same player four years after enduring four neck surgeries, and his foot injury complicated matters in what was an equally bizarre and dreadful regular season. Manning threw nearly twice as many interceptions as touchdown passes, lost his job to Brock Osweiler and was assumed to be sidelined for keeps by members of his own family. His older brother, Cooper, was coaching his son's flag-football team instead of watching the Broncos play San Diego in their final regular-season game when somebody suddenly informed him that coach Gary Kubiak had actually inserted Peyton into the lineup on the fly. Cooper immediately abandoned his coaching duties and raced home to watch, and his son called him a quitter for doing so.
Peyton later did enough to beat Pittsburgh and his New England nemesis in the playoffs, and so we are where we are. The Sunday forecast for Santa Clara is drop-dead gorgeous, and temperatures around 70 can only help an aging man wake up the echoes. And if Super Bowl 50 is indeed goodbye for Manning, DeMarcus Ware said, "We have to send him off right, and you know that you're going to get a game that probably nobody has seen."
Truth is, if anyone's going to deliver a game nobody has seen, Newton is the much better bet to do it. Through a little help from Don Shula's son, Mike, Newton has developed into the league's best player by elevating his pocket-passing game to the level of his acrobatic ground game. He's also mastering Manning's art of pre-snap improvisation; Kubiak said he was impressed by how much tinkering Newton does at the line of scrimmage.
Denver will have a devil of a time defending him, that much is certain. Tom Brady was a relatively stationary target in the AFC Championship Game, and one the Broncos pounded, but pressuring Newton requires a thinking man's pass rush. Denver has to try to box Newton into the pocket by staying home against the run. Though the Broncos know Newton is quite capable of beating them with the pass, they have no choice but to dare him to try.
"I think this is his moment," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said, "as well as our moment."
The Broncos feel the same way about the man Newton and others keep referring to as The Sheriff, and for good reason: The Sheriff is taking his fourth different head coach to the Super Bowl (Tony Dungy, Jim Caldwell and John Fox preceded Kubiak). So many questions were asked and answered about Manning all week, on both sides of the aisle, but the most thoughtful tribute came from a receiver, Emmanuel Sanders, who was asked to describe The Sheriff's mental preparation.
"I remember before I got here, I never really took notes," said Sanders, who has spent two years in Denver. "But Peyton has made me a better player because I sit right behind him. I used to watch him, and he would take notes about everything the coach said. So I'm like, I'm about to pull out my notebook.
"I remember training camp; he invited me into his room because he wanted to teach me the playbook. This was last year. I saw how he had his whole room set up. You know most hotel rooms have desks, and he would put his playbook on his desk, so I started putting my playbook on the desk and I started having success because I started studying. The way that he prepares, man, is like none other. He knows the game really well, and that's because he studies.
"If you apply yourself to anything, you're going to get great results out of it. That's one thing I learned from him, just apply yourself, take the game serious, know your job, because it's more than physical. Peyton shows that. What is he, the oldest starting quarterback in the National Football League? Some of that is physical, but the majority of that is mental. His mental edge over the competition is great."
Will that edge be enough to overcome the forces of age and gravity against the Panthers? The oddsmakers say no.
But crazier things have happened than a diminished Manning winning it all, which makes this game fascinating. That and the extreme differences between the two principal characters.
In the end, opposites attract fans and sponsors. They also make for rivalries that stand the test of time.
Peyton Manning vs. Cam Newton would've been a beauty if they were fellow 20-somethings just about to hit their stride, and that's a bummer. But at least we get them in the same Super Bowl arena Sunday, a good time to remember this cardinal rule governing clashes of the pro sports titans:
One-and-done is better than none.