DENVER (USA TODAY) - Just two years ago, the NFL world was wondering if Peyton Manning might ever throw another pass.
Now his legacy will include a third appearance in the Super Bowl after leading the Denver Broncos to the AFC Championship with a 26-16 win Sunday against the New England Patriots.
It is the first trip to the Super Bowl for the franchise since John Elway retired after leading Denver to consecutive titles after the 1998 season.
For Manning, it's his first time back in the big game after multiple neck surgeries and his release from the Indianapolis Colts, as he becomes just the third quarterback in NFL history to take a second team to the Super Bowl.
He was brilliant against New England in his 15th duel with rival quarterback Tom Brady. Manning, who will almost certainly win his fifth NFL MVP award on Feb. 1, threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns. He was 1-1 in the NFL's biggest game while with the Colts, with a win in 2007 and a loss in 2010.
Manning will bring with him to New York a suddenly stout defense that held New England to 320 total yards after shutting down the Patriots' running game (64 yards) and holding Brady to 277 passing yards. Brady was sacked twice, including a 10-yard loss on a fourth-and-1 from the Broncos' 28-yard line in the third quarter. That sack killed the Patriots' best drive of the half and drew some of the loudest cheers of the day from a sold-out crowd at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Denver fans relished the Broncos' first AFC Championship Game appearance since the 2005 season (when they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers), and the resurgence of a team that was 4-12 just three years ago. But the brief and disastrous tenure of head coach Josh McDaniels, now New England's offensive coordinator, led to the Broncos' hiring of Elway to rebuild the team and the eventual arrival of Manning.
Denver went 13-3 in both regular seasons since Manning's arrival, while the quarterback piloted an offense in 2013 that shattered records with 55 passing touchdowns and 606 points scored.
But none of that would have really mattered without this trip to the Super Bowl.
The Broncos did not get here easily. They played the first six games of the season without suspended star pass rusher Von Miller, lost all-pro left tackle Ryan Clady in Week 2, lost defensive starters Miller, defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, defensive end Derek Wolfe, safety Rahim Moore and cornerback Chris Harris to season-ending injuries and played four weeks without head coach John Fox, who underwent heart surgery in early November.
After rookie running back Montee Ball picked up a first down on fourth-and-1 after the two-minute warning, Manning was able to run the final seconds off the clock. After his final kneeldown, Manning ran to shake hands with Brady, his long-time friend and rival.
Manning improved to 5-10 in games against Brady. They've now split two playoff meetings.