EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The unraveling started when Omaha became Whoa-maha!
Manning sat at an interview podium Sunday night and, his shoulders slumping under the weight of a 43-8 loss to Seattle, tried to wrap his head around how such a big game could go wrong so quickly. That errant snap was recovered by the Broncos in the end zone for a safety a mere 12 seconds into the game, the fastest score in Super Bowl history.
"It was a cadence issue," Manning said. "We were using the snap count on the play and, due to the noise, no one could hear me. So really I was walking up to the line of scrimmage to make a change and get us on the same page, and the ball was snapped. Nobody's fault, not [center Manny Ramirez's] fault. Just a noise issue that caused that play to happen."
What Manning has to deal with now is the noise in his head, the supreme disappointment of coming up flat in one of the three biggest games of his life.
One night after winning a fifth most-valuable-player award — no one else has more than three — he capped a record-breaking season with a colossal disappointment. The No. 1 offense in football generated just 11 yards in the first quarter, and didn't pick up a first down until the second quarter.
Until the final play of the third quarter, when Manning finally threw a touchdown pass, it looked as if this might be the first shutout in Super Bowl history. As it was, the eight points were the fewest in the league's marquee game since the New York Giants' 34-7 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in January 2001.
Manning looked tentative, frustrated and befuddled, a distant cry from the quarterback who scrawled his name in the record books this season with 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns. For the first time this season, he looked every bit of his 37 years.
"I wasn't surprised at all," Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner said when asked about Denver's inability to score. "Watching the film coming into the week, we'd seen that they haven't played a defense like ours. They haven't played a defense that flies around like we do, that hits like we do, and we just do it every single play. We figured that the longer and longer the game went, they were going to fall eventually."
It was a phenomenal performance by Seattle's top-ranked defense, a historic performance. But who could have guessed the Broncos would stagger and buckle so quickly?
The Seahawks didn't use trickery and disguise to get the defensive upper hand. They did what they have done all season, physically dominating their opponent.
"It was film study and staying true to what we do," safety Kam Chancellor said. "Staying true to our format and staying fundamentally sound."
Manning said all the right things after the game, repeatedly congratulating Seattle and praising its defense. But he had to be struggling to make sense of it all. This was supposed to be the game he tied his brother, Eli, with two Super Bowl rings, erasing all doubt about his ability to play his best in the biggest games.
Instead, Manning missed on several throws, had two interceptions — one of which was returned for a 69-yard touchdown by Malcolm Smith — and was outplayed by Seattle's Russell Wilson, who had a 123.1 passer rating compared with Manning's 73.5.
"We worked hard to get to this point, overcame a lot of obstacles to be here, put in a lot of hard work," Manning said. "Certainly to finish this way is very disappointing. It's not an easy pill to swallow, but eventually we have to."
The water-cooler talk throughout the week leading up to the game was how this Super Bowl might affect Manning's legacy, whether he needed to win to cement his place in the Mt. Rushmore of NFL quarterbacks.
Asked if the loss steeled his resolve to come back next season, Manning, who said all last week he intends to return, said: "It doesn't change anything on those ends as far as what I want to do."
Broncos Coach John Fox, disappointed as he was by the defeat, scoffed when asked what he'd say to someone who questions Manning's greatness.
"I'd say, I can't really say it out loud right here, I'd get in trouble," Fox said. "Ludicrous would be proper English."
Broncos tight end Julius Thomas too defended his quarterback.
"In order to point the finger at Peyton Manning, you would be neglecting all the things he did this season to get us to this point," Thomas said. "By no means are we blaming Peyton for anything. He is the reason we're here, he is our leader, and we are going to stand by him 100%."
Trouble is, the Seahawks were surrounding Manning too on Sunday night. And they made him look like another in a long line of victims.