Peyton Manning
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning set a single-season passing record en route to a Super Bowl berth, but will his surgically-repaired neck force him into retirement? Reuters

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning may be focused solely on his team’s Super Bowl XLVIII matchup with the Seattle Seahawks, but football pundits are beginning to wonder if Sunday’s game might be the 37-year-old’s last appearance in the NFL.

The possibility of Manning’s possible retirement was a major topic at Wednesday’s Super Bowl Media Day, as reporters asked if a second Super Bowl victory might prompt him to ride off into the sunset and retire as a champion. But the Broncos quarterback seems more concerned with finding a way to exploit Seattle’s league-best secondary than examining his future in the NFL.

“I really have no plans beyond this game,” Manning told Sporting News. “I had no plans, coming into this season, beyond this year. I think that it is the healthy way to approach your career at this stage. I still enjoy playing football.”

Still, Manning did give some indication that the 2013 NFL season won't be his last. When asked what he thought his legacy within the football world will be, Manning declined to give an answer. “I’ve been being asked about my legacy since I was about 25 years old. I’m not sure you can have a legavy when you’re 25 years old. Even 37,” Manning said in a New York Times article. “I’d like to have to be, like, 70 to have a legacy. I’m not even 100 percent sure what the word even means.”

Manning went on to say that he's “still in the middle of [his] career.” Then he seemed to think better of that statement. “Let me rephrase that. I’m down in the homestretch of my career, but I’m still in it,” he said. “It’s not over yet. And so it’s still playing out.”

The 13-time Pro Bowl selection might not be saying that he’ll retire after the Super Bowl, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t eventually happen. Ultimately, Manning’s decision hinges on two key elements -- the outcome of Super Bowl XLVIII, and, more importantly, the stability of his surgically-repaired neck.

Manning certainly wouldn’t be the first NFL legend to walk away from the game after a Super Bowl victory. Former Broncos quarterback and current senior vice president John Elway won a pair of Super Bowls in 1998 and 1999 before retiring from the league. Just last season, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis decided to hang up the cleats after his team’s win over the San Francisco 49ers. But Manning points out that both of those men based their decision on their dwindling skill level rather than a desire to go out on top.

“I know that there have been a number of players who have walked away as champions. I’m sure that is is a great feeling for those people,” Manning said, via CBS News. “John Elway, Ray Lewis did it last year, and [former New York Giants star] Michael Strahan. In talking to Ray Lewis, and talking to John Elway, they couldn’t play anymore. It was all they had to give. They truly left it all out there. I certainly had a career change with years ago with my injury and with changing teams. I’ve been truly on a one-year-at-a-time basis.”

Just two years ago, Manning underwent four major neck surgeries -- the injury was considered so severe that the Indianapolis Colts were willing to part ways with him in the prime of his career. In retrospect, those surgeries were undoubtedly successful, but the continued health of Manning’s neck will be the main factor in determining whether he will return next season.

Sources close to Manning told ESPN’s Chris Mortensen that he will undergo a physical exam in March, as required by the five-year, $96 million contract he signed before the 2012 season. If the tests reveal that Manning’s neck is healthy, he plans to return to the field next season, regardless of the outcome of Super Bowl XLVIII, ESPN reports. But if the tests reveal structural damage or a risk of future injury, Manning will consider retirement.

Manning’s 2013 season quelled any doubt as to whether the aging legend can continue to play at a high level. His 55 touchdowns and 5,477 passing yards were both single-season NFL records, and his status among the league’s all-time great quarterbacks is unquestioned. Based on his recent success, it seems unlikely that Manning would chose to leave football behind when he’s still capable of dominating the league’s best defenses. Still, at 37-years-old, retirement is certainly within the realm of possibility.