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Manning drops hint of retirement

AP

Peyton Manning isn’t saying that Super Bowl 50 is his grand finale.

He’s just saying it could be.

NFL Network cameras caught an intriguing exchange between Manning and New England coach Bill Belichick after Denver’s 20-18 win over the Patriots in the AFC championship game on Sunday.

When they embraced, Manning leaned in and told Belichick, “Hey listen, this might be my last rodeo. So, it sure has been a pleasure.”

Belichick responded, “You’re a great competitor . . .”

Neither spoke of their exchange afterward.

Earlier this month, Manning said, “I’d be lying if I said I’m not thinking about that,” when asked if this could be it for him.

The five-time MVP’s season ends Feb. 7 in the Super Bowl against Carolina.

There are other signs that Manning is preparing as if he could ride into retirement next month.

He let his little boy stand beside him during his news conference after the AFC championship, just as he had taken him to the sideline before one of the games he missed in December.

These are things the maniacally focused Manning never had done before.

Long after the delirious crowd disappeared Sunday night, Manning walked through the north end zone at Sports Authority Field with his family, picked up pieces of thin blue and orange confetti and took in the scene, including the giant scoreboard in the south end zone that read, “Next Game: Super Bowl 50.”

Pushing 40, Manning will be the oldest quarterback to start a Super Bowl when he takes the field for his 293rd career game, including 27 postseason appearances.

It’s a chance for Manning to cap his most maddening season by becoming the first starting QB to win Lombardi Trophies for two different teams.

No. 18’s 18th NFL season was his most trying. It included a rash of injuries and insults and saw him serve as a scout team quarterback for the first time ever and a backup QB for the first time since his freshman year at Tennessee.

Bothered by a left foot injury, Manning threw just nine TD passes and 17 interceptions in nine starts, but he was 7-2 in those games, one of the losses coming against Kansas City on Nov. 15 when he left the game injured.

He missed the next seven starts but won his starting job back from Brock Osweiler on Jan. 3 when he entered in the third quarter against San Diego and ignited a stagnant, mistake-prone offense.

Manning led four scoring drives and the Broncos’ 27-20 win earned them the AFC’s No. 1 seed.

Manning was methodical in a 23-16 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round and he threw two TD passes to tight end Owen Daniels while dethroning the defending champions Sunday.

It was Manning’s third win in four conference championship games against his rival, Tom Brady, who is 10-3 against Manning in the regular season in the most storied quarterback rivalry in NFL history.