Peyton Manning has at least one more game in him. With many expecting the future Hall of Fame quarterback to retire, he led the Denver Broncos to the Super Bowl with a 20-18 thriller over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.
Manning threw two first-half touchdown passes to Owen Daniels, sandwiched around a 1-yard plunge by New England’s Steven Jackson to lead 14-6. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who had made 523 consecutive extra points, missed after the Jackson touchdown.
It would turn out to be huge.
After Denver led 17-9 at the half, the only scoring in the third period came on a 38-yard Gostkowski field goal. Brandon McManus connected from 31 yards out with for Denver to give them a 20-12 lead with 10:31 remaining.
Both teams made two huge fourth-down plays in the fourth quarter. Denver twice stopped the Patriots on fourth down before Brady and New England took the ball at midfield with 1:52 remaining.
On fourth and 10, Brady and Tight End Rob Gronkowski hooked up for a 40-yard gain to the Denver 10. On a fourth and goal from the 4, Brady’s desperation heave into the end zone was hauled in by Gronkowski to make it 20-18 with 12 seconds remaining.
Instead of lining up for the extra point, New England was forced to go for two because of the earlier miss by Gostkowski. The try for the tying 2 points was intercepted and the Broncos were AFC Champions.
Denver was a 3-point underdog going into the game, but did not play that way. Their defense put enormous pressure on Brady and the New England offense.
Brady was sacked four times, and was held in check for most of the first three quarters. All-Pro linebacker Von Miller accounted for 2.5 of those sacks. One of Brady’s two interceptions led to the second Denver touchdown.
“Defensively, we played our tails off all year long,” said Denver Coach Gary Kubiak. “We found a way to win another trophy.”
In the fourth quarter, Brady finally had the Bronco defense on the run and it was all they could do to hang on. He finished 27 completions in 56 attempts for 310 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions. New England rushed 17 times for 44 yards.
Manning did most of his damage in the first half, but finished with 17 completions on 32 attempts for 176 yards and the two touchdowns to Daniels.
Denver’s victory broke a tie between Manning and Brady in their all-time head-to-head matchup in the playoffs. Manning has now won three of the five meetings. The two quarterbacks had a moment together following the game, followed by a Manning chat with Patriot Coach Bill Belichick.
“I wanted to take the time to share with Tom and Bill how much respect I have for both of them,” said Manning. “What a special coach and player they have been.”
When the Broncos take the field in Santa Clara, California, on Feb. 7, Manning will be the oldest quarterback to ever start in the title game. He will be little more than one month shy of his 40th birthday.