Peyton Manning outgunned great rival Tom Brady as the Denver Broncos, behind a ferocious defense, edged the defending champion New England Patriots 20-18 on Sunday to book their place in Super Bowl 50.
During the buildup to the AFC championship game in the Mile High City, the spotlight was fixed on Manning and Brady, the two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks who were meeting for the 17th, and perhaps final time on the gridiron.
But it was the Denver defense that stole the show, intercepting Brady twice in the opening half and making two crucial fourth down stops late in the fourth quarter to snuff out potentially game tying scoring drives, including one with just 2:18 on the clock.
The Patriots, however, would not quit and with 12 seconds left Brady hit Rob Gronkowski with a four-yard touchdown pass.
Needing a two-point convert to force overtime, the Denver defense again dug in, with Bradley Roby stepping in front of Brady's pass attempt to preserve the victory and a spot in their record-equalling eighth Super Bowl.
Manning, who had been plagued by injury and questionable form all season, turned in a performance worthy of a five-times NFL Most valuable player, tossing a pair of first half touchdowns to Owen Daniels.
"To be going to our second Super Bowl in four years is very special and just an awesome effort by our entire team," Manning, who will become the oldest quarterback to play in a Super Bowl, told the Denver crowd. "And what an incredible effort by the Patriots, for us to beat that team today, a very special win."
"It's been a special rivalry (with Brady) over the course of our career ... I just wanted to take the time to share with Tom (Brady) and Bill (Belichick) how much respect I have for them and just what special coaches and players they are."
Added Denver coach Gary Kubiak: "Defensively we played our tails off all year long and found a way to win another close one."
Denver's pass rush that led the league in sacks kept Brady under pressure the entire game, forcing the Patriots quarterback to hurry passes and miss targets.
Brady completed 27 of 56 pass attempts for 310 yards but was sacked four times, intercepted twice and picked off again on a two-point attempt as New England's Super Bowl defense ended.
"For it to come down to a two-point conversion obviously is a tough way to finish the season," offered a dejected Brady after the game.
"You make some, you're not going to make them all."
"It was a tough day. Hard fought football game. (The Broncos) put a lot of pressure on you.
"We had some tough plays we just didn’t make them. Just came up one play short."
Denver got the game off to a flying start, as Manning marched the Broncos 83 yards on their opening possession, completing the drive with a 21-yard dart to Daniels.
Brady, meanwhile, was unable to do much against Denver's top ranked defense until Jonathan Freeny alertly scooped up a Manning backward pass giving New England the ball on the Broncos 22.
Two plays later Steven Jackson powered over from the one.
Denver, however, maintained a 7-6 lead when Stephen Gostkowski missed his first extra point in 10 years.
The Broncos also capitalized on a turnover, Von Miller intercepting Brady at the New England 20 and Manning quickly arching a 12-yard touchdown strike to Daniels.
The half ended with the Broncos and Patriots hitting on long field goals to send Denver into the break up 17-9.
The Patriots began the second half chipping away at the Denver lead with Gostkowski connecting on a 38-yard field for the only score of the quarter.
Denver's Brandon McManus answered with a 31-yarder field goal in the fourth quarter to restore the Broncos' eight point cushion before Brady mounted a last ditch Patriots rally.
(Editing by Andrew Both. Additonal reporting Jahmal Corner, Larry Fine, Mark Lamport-Stokes.)