SAN FRANCISCO >> It's the perfect scenario, a Hollywood-type script: Peyton Manning emulates John Elway and rides off into the sunset with the Lombardi Trophy in his grip.
Will it really happen?
For Manning to take the Denver Broncos to their first NFL title since the team's current general manager, Elway, did in 1999 before retiring, seems the sentimental choice across the nation.
Like Elway, Manning has had a taste of losing in the big game, going 1-2, including a lopsided loss to Seattle two years ago. Elway dropped his first three Super Bowls, then won his final two.
"I am very grateful for the opportunity," the 39-year-old Manning said. "I keep probably repeating myself but I'm honored to be a part of it, and the other three that I played in, I was honored to be a part of those as well."
Should this be Manning's final game, he will leave as the most accomplished regular-season quarterback, owning five league MVP awards. He's had a difficult past few seasons, sidelined for 2011 entirely because of neck surgeries, then struggling in last year's playoffs and missing six games in 2015 with a foot injury.
But he also earned that fifth MVP in 2013 before falling to Seattle.
Receiver Demaryius Thomas can envision the proper ending to this drama for Denver.
"It's amazing to play for Peyton," Thomas says. "He's one of the best to have ever done it, a future Hall of Famer, and he has done so much for me. I'm excited about it, and hopefully we can get this win, and if he decides to retire then he can go out with a bang."
Standing in their way, though, is simply the best team in football.
This is the third straight season the top seeds have won conference titles. The Panthers are 17-1, have the league's most prolific offense behind All-Pro quarterback Cam Newton, and a big-play defense. That D might not match the stats of the Broncos (14-4), who ranked first overall, but it's just as impactful.
"I sound like a broken record, but yet for a dream to play out as it has through the ups and downs, it just means the world for us to get what you prepare for," says Newton, finishing off his fifth and, by far, best pro season.
"For us, the ultimate goal for this sport is to win a Super Bowl. You win national championships in college and ... you try to get drafted to a team that's going to put you in the right position to win a Super Bowl."
That's where the Panthers have arrived. Carolina is a 5 1-2 point favorite to become only the third team to go 18-1 and win the Super Bowl.
Both defenses will have their moments Sunday. Denver's is just too good to be dominated for very long, producing a dynamic pass rush led by Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, and with superb coverage backs. Carolina's Luke Kuechly, Josh Norman, Thomas Davis (if he can go after needing surgery on a broken right arm) and Kawann Short are game changers.
Carolina is far more likely to find balance on its offense; Jonathan Stewart is the best running back on either roster, and Newton's power and breakaway ability toting the ball are unmatched for the quarterback position.
One area the Panthers are superior, perhaps vastly so, is on the offensive line. So the Broncos' relentless pursuit of the quarterback doesn't figure to be as fruitful as it was against New England's Tom Brady in the AFC championship game.
It all adds up to Cam and Company spoiling another Super Bowl for the Broncos, leaving Manning to ponder if he wants to leave football after losing his final game.
2015 RECORD: Against spread: Week 1-1, Season (126-125-7). Straight up: Week 1-1, Season (162-104)
Best Bet: 8-10-1 against spread, 11-8 straight up.
Upset special: 9-9 against spread, 6-12 straight up.