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 to 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.
Only three years ago, he could barely grip a football as he started the long comeback from surgeries that ravaged his neck and nerve endings. And only 53 weeks ago, he suffered a devastating loss to Baltimore in the divisional playoffs that derailed what looked like a Super Bowl trip in his comeback season.
But Manning will get his chance for a second Super Bowl ring, after all. He’ll try to become the first starting quarterback to win one with two different teams, at the Meadowlands on Feb. 2 against Seattle.
“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 he’s now 2-1 in AFC title games.
“I have a lot of respect for him,” Brady said. “Certainly, he’s a great player, and he played great today.”
Though Manning threw for 400 yards, it was more dink-and-dunk than a fireworks show in this, the 15th matchup of the NFL’s best quarterbacks of their 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.
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 more than 7 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 Patriots (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 past three games didn’t have much quick-strike capability. Brady, who threw for most of his 277 yards in comeback mode, 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.
“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 Jersey, 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, 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).
“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.”