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SAN FRANCISCO — There is a whispered question hanging over the Broncos this week as the fog of age and a dimming career follow Peyton Manning's every move.

His teammates are curt about it.

"I won't talk about that," backup quarterback Brock Osweiler said.

But there's a wink and a nod here too. Everyone is sure it's coming, that Manning is playing his final game Sunday in the Super Bowl, even if Manning won't say it.

If this is the end, Manning is lucky. Rarely do the greats get a chance to walk off with such drama.

John Elway did it. Ray Bourque. Rocky Marciano. Bobby Jones. It was their ticket into legend. Their final swings made them champions. The game's greatest exits came when sport met theater and everything fell together like a script.

"It is a special opportunity," Manning said Thursday, a small acknowledgment of the situation.

We say: "They went out on top" — as if the opposite could have been true. If the Broncos hadn't won their second Super Bowl in 1999, would we have said, "Elway went out a loser?" Of course not.

Michael Jordan, at age 39 (the same age as Manning), played his final game for the Washington Wizards, a ho-hum loss to the 76ers in Philadelphia. Does it detract from his legacy? Of course not.

But Manning, in his 18th season, stands one win from his 201st, one that could cement his legacy.

"It's something we're going to look back on. It's unbelievable," Bourque said on live TV, seconds after handing the Stanley Cup back to Joe Sakic when the Avalanche won in 2001. Bourque played 22 seasons in the NHL. He won his final game. He skated off a legend as a champion with the Avs, his only title.

"The stories will get better and better as we age," he said.

Marciano was 48-0 and 32 years old when he fought Archie Moore for the heavyweight championship at Yankee Stadium in 1955. Marciano was still undefeated when Moore knocked him to the canvas in the second round and the referee counted to five. And he stayed undefeated after he KO'd Moore in the ninth. Marciano retired undefeated a few months later.

The pressure to exit as a champion can be paralyzing. Jones was a massive star on par with Babe Ruth when he won golf's version of the Grand Slam in 1930. He retired soon after at age 28. The grind was too great.

"It is something like a cage," Jones said of living up to the legend. "First, you are expected to get into it, and then you are expected to stay there. But, of course, nobody can stay there."

Manning is already on a rare pedestal as a five-time MVP. He won a Super Bowl as the game's MVP in 2007. But that was nine years ago.

"You want to be remembered as someone who set yourself apart at what you did. Every player wants that," said Kurt Warner, who won a Super Bowl in 2000 but lost his final game in 2008, then retired the next year. "You push forward so that regardless of where you were or what was going on that people remember you at that certain level."

Ted Williams hit .316 in 1960 when he was 41. The Red Sox finished seventh in the American League. But in his final at-bat, Williams hit a home run to deep center field at Fenway Park to help win the game. He walked off a legend and never came back.

The Avalanche’s Ray Bourque raises the Stanley Cup in 2001 in one of hockey’s greatest moments.
The Avalanche's Ray Bourque raises the Stanley Cup in 2001 in one of hockey's greatest moments. (John Leyba, Denver Post file)

In his essay on Williams' final game, John Updike wrote about "the hardest thing" — how to quit:

"There will always lurk, around a corner in a pocket of our knowledge of the odds, an indefensible hope, and this was one of the times, which you now and then find in sports, when a density of expectation hangs in the air and plucks an event out of the future."

Nick Groke: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or @nickgroke

Going out on top

A lucky few have the rare opportunity to win their final games for a championship. Here are some of the most legendary sports exits:

John Elway

1999, Super Bowl XXXIII

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The NFL's greatest exit. Elway threw for 336 yards and a touchdown and ran for another. The Broncos won and Elway, at 38, became the oldest Super Bowl MVP.

Ray Bourque

2001, Stanley Cup Game 7

The NHL's greatest exit. Bourque played in 1,826 games over 22 seasons before winning a title. Avs captain Joe Sakic immediately handed him the Stanley Cup.

Rocky Marciano

1955, heavyweight championship

The only heaveyweight champ to retired undefeated, Marciano rallied after a second-round knockdown to KO Archie Moore at Yankee Stadium and move to 49-0.

Bobby Jones

1930, U.S. Amateur Championship

He was only 28 when his victory at Merion Cricket Club near Philadelphia made him the first to win golf's grand slam, the game's four most prestigous tournaments.

Pete Sampras

2002, U.S. Open

He was seeded 17th that year in New York, but his four-set victory over Andre Agassi netted him a record 14th grand slam singles title and a fifth U.S. Open championship.

Bill Russell

1969, NBA Championship Game 7

He was 35 with creaky knees, but Russell grabbed 21 rebounds to help lead the Celtics to a 108-106 win over the Lakers. It gave Russell an 11th NBA title in 13 seasons.

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