DENVER — Peyton Manning stuffed the football into his helmet and handed it to an equipment man for safekeeping.
The connection: Flawless, as usual.
The keepsake: Certainly one he'll want to hang on to.
The Broncos quarterback had an answer for everyone Sunday — from Tom Brady to the New England defense to anyone who thought he couldn't win the big one.
Manning is taking the Broncos on a trip to New York for the Super Bowl after another of his impeccably crafted victories — this time, a 26-16 win over the Patriots on Sunday in the AFC title game.
"Being in my 16th season, going to my third Super Bowl, I know how hard it is to get there," Manning said.
Especially this time.
He's less than three years removed from being unable to throw a football because of his surgically ravaged neck and nerve endings, and a bit over a year has passed since a devastating loss to Baltimore derailed what looked like a Super Bowl trip in his comeback season.
A year later, however, Manning will get his chance for his second Super Bowl ring. He'll try to become the first starting quarterback to win one with two different teams, at the Meadowlands on Feb. 2 against Seattle, who beat San Francisco 23-17 later Sunday in the NFC Championship game.
"He's been remarkable," said Broncos coach John Fox, off to his second Super Bowl as a head coach. "It's unprecedented what he did."
After packing away his football, Manning ran to the 30-yard line to shake hands with Brady. A bit later in the locker room, he celebrated with his father, Archie, and brothers Cooper and Eli, the Giants quarterback who surprised Peyton much the way Peyton surprised him by showing up at the NFC title game two years ago.
The Indy-turned-Denver quarterback improved to 5-10 lifetime against Brady, but is now 2-1 in AFC title games.
Though Manning threw for 400 yards, it more dink-and-dunk than a fireworks show in this, the 15th installment of the NFL's two best quarterbacks of a generation. Manning set up four field goals by Matt Prater and put his stamp on this one with a pair of long, meticulous and mistake-free touchdown drives in which nothing came cheap.
He geared down the no-huddle, hurry-up offense that helped him set records for touchdown passes and yardage this season and made the Broncos the highest-scoring team in history. The result: 93- and 80-yard touchdown drives that each lasted a few seconds over seven minutes; they were the two longest, time-wise, of the season for the Broncos (15-3).
The Broncos held the ball for 35:44. They were 7 for 13 on third-down conversions.
"To keep Tom Brady on the sideline is a good thing," Manning said. "That's something you try to do when you're playing the Patriots."
Manning capped the second long drive with a 3-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas, who got inside the overmatched Alfonzo Dennard and left his feet to make the catch. It gave Denver a 20-3 lead midway through the third quarter.
From there, it was catch-up time for Brady and the Pats (13-5), and they are not built for that — at least not this year.
"We got in a hole there," Brady said. "It was just too much to dig our way out."
A team that averaged more than 200 yards on the ground the last three games didn't have much quick-strike capability. Brady, who threw for most of his 277 yards in comeback mode, actually led the Patriots to a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns. But they were a pair of time-consuming, 80-yard drives. The second cut the deficit to 26-16 with 3:07 left, but the Broncos stopped Shane Vereen on the 2-point conversion and the celebration was on in Denver.
"Losing is never easy," Patriots defensive lineman Rob Ninkovich said. "But when you have somebody as talented as (Manning), who puts in as much work and effort, and has done it for so long, it's a little bit easier to swallow."
The trip to New York, where it figures to be at least a tad cooler than Sunday's 63-degree reading at kickoff, will come 15 years after John Elway rode off into the sunset with his second straight Super Bowl victory.
The Broncos have had one close call since — when they lost at home to Pittsburgh in the 2005 season's AFC title game — but what it really took was Elway's return to the franchise in 2011. He slammed the door on the Tim Tebow experiment and signed Manning to a contract, knowing there were risks involved in bringing to town a thirty-something quarterback coming off multiple operations to resurrect his career.
Even without Von Miller on the field, Elway put enough pieces in place around Manning to move within a game of the championship.
Thomas. Wes Welker (four catches, 38 yards). Eric Decker (5-73). Tight end Julius Thomas (8-85).
"It's been a terrific group," Elway said as he hoisted the AFC championship trophy. "They worked their tail off all year."
Manning knows how to make the most of all the options he's been given.
This game started getting out of hand at about the same time Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib went out with a knee injury. Nobody else could cover Thomas, and Manning, who finds mismatches even under the toughest of circumstances, found this one quickly.
"Talib's an excellent player," Manning said, "but Demaryius was going to be a big part of the game plan, either way."
Thomas finished with seven catches for 134 yards, including receptions of 26 and 27 yards that set up a field goal for a 13-3 lead before the half. Not a bad day for a player who tweaked his knee last week and was limited in practice Friday.
Denver got the ball to start the third quarter and Manning hit Thomas for 15 and 4 yards as part of the 80-yard, 7:08 touchdown drive that gave Denver the 17-point lead.
"Peyton Manning is Peyton Manning," Patriots defensive end Andre Carter said. "He's a smart player and able to make adjustments when he needs to."
New England came up a win short of the Super Bowl for the second straight year.
The thought this week was that Bill Belichick's team was playing with house money, having well exceeded expectations for a team that lost a number of stars — Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski — and has been plagued by injuries all year.
But a loss is a loss and facts are facts. Belichick is stuck on three titles and hasn't won one since the NFL busted him for the Spygate videotaping scandal.
"There were a lot of opportunities in the game that if we were able to coach better, play better, execute better in any of those areas, it would have given us a chance," Belichick said.
The Broncos, meanwhile, got over a big hump last week by beating the Chargers in the divisional round, which is where last year's trip fizzled unexpectedly against Baltimore.
Manning insisted this week's showdown against Brady was more Broncos vs. Patriots than Manning vs. Brady. He lets others decide who's the greatest at this or that.
But he earned a chance to improve on his already-sterling legacy — one that figures to leave him holding his fifth MVP trophy come Super Bowl week.
A win at MetLife Stadium in two weeks would put him in the same company brother Eli, along with Elway, Roger Staubach and a few others as a two-time Super Bowl winner.
Two weeks for Manning to prepare might feel like a lifetime.
At times, his long, difficult comeback has felt like a lifetime, too.
"We've definitely come a long way in two years," Manning said. "And bouncing back from last year's playoff loss to put ourselves in this position, it definitely feels very gratifying."
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