DENVER – Perhaps it was a sign of his age, or even the length of time since he’d been in a similar situation. As the Denver Broncos celebrated their 26-16 win over the New England Patriots on Sunday, Peyton Manning did the unhippest of things. Before donning the customary baseball cap proclaiming the Broncos AFC champions, the 37-year-old quarterback removed the stickers and thoroughly bent the bill of the hat. But on this day, uncool and old school was back in style.
Maybe what’s old will be new again when Manning and the Broncos head to Super Bowl XLVIII to face the Seahawks on Feb. 2 in East Rutherford, N.J. It’s a matchup featuring the NFL’s most explosive offense against the league’s most physical defense.
With his family among the 77,110 orange-clad fans packed into sun-drenched Sports Authority Stadium on a warm day, Manning culminated his comeback from a near career-ending neck injury in 2011 by delivering one of his best postseason performances.
Manning completed 32 of 43 passes for 400 yards and two touchdowns with a passer rating of 118.4. He was in total command of the Broncos’ high-powered and multiple-look offense. When the Broncos needed to convert on third down, Manning made the throw. When the Patriots were giving a look where a run would work best, Manning audibled into a play that almost always resulted in positive yardage for Knowshon Moreno or Montee Ball.
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More important, Manning outdueled Tom Brady, who completed 24 of 38 passes for 277 yards and a touchdown. While both quarterbacks tried all week to shift the focus on the game being Broncos vs. Patriots, it was still Manning vs. Brady, Part 15. Manning won this battle and is only 5-10 against Brady, but 2-1 against him in AFC title games.
“Any time we lose, there are things I can do better,” Brady said. “Certainly there are some things I wish I could’ve done better today.”
There wasn’t much the Broncos wished Manning could’ve done better.
“What can you say?” said wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. “It was amazing.”
Broncos coach John Fox found little more to say about his future Hall of Fame quarterback.
“He’s been remarkable,” Fox said. “It’s been unprecedented for what he did, even a year ago, to come from not playing (in 2011), a very unusual injury that he was coming off. To get to where he finished a season ago and then to have the kind of season he’s had, to me, it is pretty remarkable.”
Manning didn’t allow himself much postgame introspection about his journey back to the Super Bowl. There’s still another game left — the biggest of his season. Perhaps the thought of multiple neck surgeries, severe nerve damage to where he couldn’t even grip a football and his forced departure from Indianapolis weren’t something he wanted to think about in the postgame glow.
“I have put in a lot of hard work and a lot of people — teammates, coaches, trainers — have helped me along the way,” he said.
Even when his health returned, a Super Bowl was far from a guarantee. A year ago, Denver was a favorite in the AFC with Manning putting up huge numbers in his first year with the team. But the Broncos were stunned at home in the divisional round by the Baltimore Ravens.
“Being in my 16th season, going to my third Super Bowl, I know how hard it is to get there,” Manning said. “It’s extremely difficult.”
Denver was coldly efficient on offense, scoring on six of eight drives and racking up 27 first downs and 507 yards of total offense. Manning was democratic in his targets, spreading the ball around — eight players made catches — while taking what the Patriots gave him.
Yet, it could have been better. The Broncos settled for four Matt Prater field goals. On two of those drives, Denver had the ball inside the Patriots’ 10-yard line and failed to score touchdowns.
“Certainly we are looking to score more touchdowns and try to make it a two-score, three-score lead,” Manning said. “We were disappointed.”
It could have come back to haunt the Broncos. But the two touchdowns they scored were so time-consuming, it left Brady and the Patriots playing against Denver and the clock. The Broncos’ first touchdown was a 15-play, 93-yard march, which ended with a 1-yard touchdown pass from Manning to Jacob Tamme, ate up 7:01 of game clock and gave them a 10-0 lead. It was their longest scoring drive of the season. But they bettered that mark in the first drive after halftime, using 7:08 to go 80 yards in 13 plays with Manning hitting Thomas on a 3-yard scoring pass and going up 20-3.
“To keep Tom Brady on the sidelines is a good thing,” Manning deadpanned. “That is something you try to do when you’re playing against the Patriots.”
Ryan Divish: 206-464-2373; firstname.lastname@example.org.