Peyton Manning outshined his future Hall of Fame rival Tom Brady, firing two touchdown passes, as the Denver Broncos rolled to a 26-16 win over the New England Patriots on Sunday to secure their first trip to the Super Bowl in 15 years.
The Broncos and the National Football League's top-ranked offense will take on the Seattle Seahawks and the number one defense at New Jersey's MetLife Stadium on February 2 in what should provide the first cold weather Super Bowl with a sizzling matchup.
"The heart feels great," said Denver coach John Fox, who missed a month of the regular season after undergoing heart surgery in November for an aortic heart valve replacement. "He (Manning) has been remarkable.
"To have the kind of season, not just today, but all season long that he had to me is pretty remarkable.
"And there is still one more game."
The AFC title game had been hyped as Manning verses Brady 15, a legacy showdown between two of the greatest quarterbacks to ever grace the American gridiron.
But on a perfect day for football in the Mile High city Manning proved he could carry his record-smashing regular season form into the playoffs, tossing for 400 yards including touchdowns to Jacob Tamme and Demaryius Thomas.
The victory allowed Manning to level his playoff record against Brady at 2-2 but the New England quarterback continues to hold a decisive 10-5 edge in their all-time head to head meetings.
THIRD SUPER BOWL
A four-time NFL most valuable player, Manning came into Sunday under pressure to prove he can also get the job done when it counts most and turn his record-breaking campaign into a Super Bowl title.
"It's an exciting feeling (to get back to the Super Bowl)," said Manning who set a new single season mark with 55 touchdown passes. "You take a moment to realize we have done something special here and certainly want to win one more.
"You have to take time to savor the moment. Being in my 16th season and going to my third Super Bowl I know how hard it is to get there. It is extremely difficult."
The first (Broncos) and third (Patriots) highest scoring offenses during the NFL regular season combined for just 16 points in a tight opening half.
But after punting their first possession, Manning had the Denver's high-octane offense humming, scoring points the next six times they had the ball.
Both teams were slow out of the blocks, a 27-yard field goal from Denver's Matt Prater accounting for all the first quarter scoring.
But in the second quarter, Manning engineered a time chomping 93-yard, 15 play drive capped by a one-yard strike to Tamme that ate up nearly half the quarter.
On New England's next possession it was Brady's turn to show what he could do, taking the Patriots down to the Denver 30 where the drive stalled and New England settled for a 47-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal.
Backed up on their own 10, Manning went to the air, completing six straight passes to move Denver down to the New England 17 before Prater booted another field goal to restore the Broncos' 10-point lead going into the intermission.
After the break, Manning took Denver on another long scoring drive, finishing it off with a three-yard laser to Thomas to surge ahead 20-3.
It was familiar territory for Brady and the Patriots, who found themselves down 24-0 at the half in their regular season meeting against Denver before fighting back for a win in overtime.
But there would be no magical comeback this time, Brady unable to get the Patriots attack in gear until late in the final quarter after the Broncos had added to their advantage in with another Prater field goal.
Brady finally got Patriots into the end zone with a seven-yard touchdown pass to Julian Edelman and ran in for another sandwiched in between a 54-yard Prater field goal.
"We just didn't score enough points and gave up too many. It's as simple as that," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "I thought we played hard, I thought we were ready to go we just didn't make enough plays, do things well enough.
"Denver did them better than we did today and that's why they deserved to win and move on."
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto and Julian Linden, Editing by Gene Cherry)