Perfect setting for Manning’s curtain call

Here’s a perfect ending for Peyton Manning. Or even an imperfect one.

At least it’s an ending: Denver Broncos 24, Carolina Panthers 10.

On Sunday night, Manning won his second Super Bowl. But this time, unlike the last time in 2007, he should feel equal parts relieved and grateful for his Super Bowl ring bling. Because this time, Manning was the sidekick, not the star.

The Broncos’ defense won the game. It scored the team’s first touchdown when linebacker Von Miller, the game’s Most Valuable Player, sacked Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Defensive end Malik Jackson recovered the fumble to score. None of those Broncos ever backed down.

Manning ended with no touchdowns and one interception. He finished 13 of 23 for 141 yards, to end a personally rickety season. Now he should exhale — and end his career.

Manning, who has been coy about whether he will retire this year, should acknowledge that 18 seasons as an NFL quarterback have been more than enough.

At 39, he should feel lucky to have lasted this long with an aging, creaky body and an oft-repaired neck. This season, he missed six games with a foot injury. Before that injury, he threw 17 interceptions, a league high, and had his worst completion percentage, 59.9 percent, since his rookie year. Yet Manning returned to a team that nearly ran on autopilot — all the way to a Super Bowl victory.

To end Sunday night, he should have stood at the center of Levi’s Stadium and dropped the mike.

But players don’t think that way. Especially top ones like Manning. They like to drag out their answer when deciding whether to retire. They ponder and consult and consider. They make everyone else ponder and consider, too.

After the game, Manning didn’t announce whether he would retire. Instead, he said he would take the advice of the former NFL coach Tony Dungy and not make an emotional decision. He would “take some time to reflect.”

“This has been an emotional week, an emotional night,” Manning said. “I want to celebrate with my family. I’m going to drink a lot of beer tonight. Those are my priorities tonight.”

Priorities for tomorrow? Deciding whether he should come back for the money? Or come back because he would miss the spotlight?

What would convince Manning to just walk away? I don’t know. So many reasons to retire, maybe 150 to 200 reasons.

He might call his financial adviser to find that he really doesn’t need the millions he’s set to make in 2016 because, miracle of miracles, he has made more than $200 million in his career (not including endorsements or sponsorships).

He might read the sad and jarring story of Ken Stabler, the former Oakland Raiders quarterback who died from colon cancer in July at age 69. Last week, it was revealed that Stabler, who was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the degenerative brain disease thought to be caused by repeated blows to the head. Stabler’s end came after years of cognitive decline. He heard ringing in his head and worried that football had damaged his brain.

Maybe Manning saw my colleague John Branch’s story about Stabler and noticed that Branch quoted Dr. Ann McKee, chief of neuropathology at the VA Boston Healthcare System and a professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University School of Medicine. She was the doctor who examined Stabler’s brain.

“The very severity of the disease, at least that we’re seeing in American football players, seems to correlate with the duration of play,” McKee said. “The longer they play, the more severe we see it.”

Stabler’s NFL career lasted 15 seasons — three fewer than Manning’s, so far.

It could be that Manning heard Stabler’s story — and the stories about other former players who had the disease — and made up his mind about leaving the league, win or lose, at the conclusion of this Super Bowl.

After all, he has two young children, 4-year-old twins. He might want to spend time with them, and be able to remember them, as the years go on. Maybe he would want to help Marshall, one of those twins, learn how to write.

After the Broncos beat the New England Patriots in the AFC championship last month, Marshall was practicing his letters on a dry-erase board in the locker room. If Peyton Manning had put the boy’s hand in his right hand to guide him, would he even have been able to feel his son’s soft skin? Manning lost the feeling in his fingertips after his neck surgery in 2011.

The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana retired partly to spend time with his children, but he said he now regretted not being able to ski or snowboard or even play basketball with them. He told USA Today last week that he cannot straighten one of his legs because of a knee problem and that he “can’t really run or do much” because of it.

Montana, 59, has neck problems that could lead to yet another neck fusion surgery and has nerve damage in one of his eyes. Arthritis wracks his hands.

“My hands have been, oh my gosh, in the middle of the night, they hurt like crazy,” said Montana, who played in the NFL for 15 seasons.

Manning didn’t miss an NFL start until he was 35, when back and neck problems began haunting him. He didn’t take the hint: A bell was tolling, reminding him to consider retirement. Now, four years later, that bell has gone silent. After ringing so long, and so loudly, the clapper fell off.

This season, there was another clue for Manning that enough was enough.

In December, Al-Jazeera reported that he had received shipments of human growth hormone, a drug banned by the NFL, from an Indianapolis anti-aging clinic the year he had neck surgery. Manning said he never used the drug. The situation hasn’t helped Peyton Manning’s reputation as the squeaky clean guy next door, and didn’t boost his appeal as a product pitchman, either.

The signs for Manning to quit are everywhere, and Manning should heed them: Now is the time to say goodbye.

He needs to hang up his cleats, for his sake — and for the sake of his body and his brain and his children and his reputation.

Even the Panthers can see Manning retiring now.

“Everybody wants to see him go out and perform at a high level and kind of ride off into the sunset,” Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said.

Why not a Northern California sunset?

No better a backdrop for a beautiful, fitting finish.