DENVER – Peyton Manning stuffed the football into his helmet and handed it to an equipment man for safekeeping.
The connection: Flawless, as usual.
The keepsake: Certainly one he’ll want to hang on to.
The Broncos quarterback had an answer for everyone Sunday — from Tom Brady to the New England defense to anyone who thought he couldn’t win the big one.
Manning is taking the Broncos on a trip to New York for the Super Bowl after another of his impeccably crafted victories — this time, a 26-16 win over the Patriots on Sunday in the AFC title game.
“Being in my 16th season, going to my third Super Bowl, I know how hard it is to get there,” Manning said.
Especially this time.
Only three years ago, he could barely grip a football as he started the long comeback from surgeries that ravaged his neck and nerve endings. And only 53 weeks ago, he suffered a devastating loss to Baltimore in the divisional playoffs that derailed what looked like a Super Bowl trip in his comeback season.
But Manning will get his chance for a second Super Bowl ring, after all. He’ll try to become the first starting quarterback to win one with two different teams, at the Meadowlands on Feb. 2 against Seattle, which beat San Francisco later Sunday for the NFC championship.
“He’s been remarkable,” said Broncos coach John Fox, off to his second Super Bowl as a head coach. “It’s unprecedented what he did.”
The Indy-turned-Denver quarterback improved to 5-10 lifetime against Brady, but is now 2-1 in AFC title games.
“I have a lot of respect for him,” Brady said. “Certainly, he’s a great player and he played great today.”
Though Manning threw for 400 yards, it was more dink-and-dunk than a fireworks show in this, the 15th installment between the NFL’s two best quarterbacks of a generation. Manning set up four field goals by Matt Prater and put his stamp on this one with a pair of long, meticulous and mistake-free touchdown drives in which nothing came cheap.
He geared down the no-huddle, hurry-up offense that helped him set records for touchdown passes and yardage this season and made the Broncos the highest-scoring team in history. The result: 93- and 80-yard touchdown drives that each lasted more than seven minutes.
The Broncos held the ball for 35:44. They were 7-for-13 on third-down conversions.
“To keep Tom Brady on the sideline is a good thing,” Manning said. “That’s something you try to do when you’re playing the Patriots.”
Manning capped the second long drive with a 3-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas, who got inside the overmatched Alfonzo Dennard and left his feet to make the catch. It gave Denver a 20-3 lead midway through the third quarter.
From there, it was catch-up time for Brady and the Pats (13-5), and they are not built for that — at least not this year.
“We got in a hole there,” Brady said. “It was just too much to dig our way out.
Brady, who threw for most of his 277 yards in comeback mode, actually led the Patriots to a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns. But they were a pair of time-consuming, 80-yard drives. The second cut the deficit to 26-16 with 3:07 left, but the Broncos stopped Shane Vereen on the 2-point conversion and the celebration was on in Denver.