DENVER — Get ready for Brady-Manning XVII.
Peyton Manning earned one more and possibly final game against his rival by leading the Denver Broncos to a come-from-behind 23-16 win over Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.
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That set up an AFC championship game next weekend in Denver against Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots (13-4).
Manning and Brady have squared off 16 times before, a full season’s worth of matchups between the two quarterbacks whose careers are so intertwined that a conversation about one almost has to include the other — like Bird vs. Magic or Ali vs. Frazier.
“It’ll be the Broncos vs. the Patriots,” Manning said. “We’ll enjoy this one tonight. I think you knew that answer was coming. To kind of quote Bill Belichick, we’ll be on to New England. But I’ll be talking about them on Wednesday.”
His boss, John Elway, who only got to face his fellow Hall of Famer Dan Marino twice in his playing career, once said there will never be another rivalry like Brady-Manning.
Brady has won 11 of the 16 meetings, but they’re 2-2 in the playoffs, including Denver’s 26-16 win in the conference championship game two years ago. This game marks just the seventh time Manning will face Brady at home.
This matchup was slated for November before Manning went out with a foot injury that pushed longtime backup Brock Osweiler into the starting — and starring — role.
Osweiler led the Broncos (13-4) back from a two-touchdown, fourth-quarter deficit against New England on Nov. 29 in a game Denver won 30-24 in overtime. Manning had just gotten out of his cast and watched that game from the locker room.
He returned to action in the season finale, his cameo propelling the Broncos past San Diego and into the AFC’s No. 1 seed that ensures Brady & Co. will have to play at altitude in their fifth consecutive trip to the conference championship game.
Manning’s teammates dropped seven passes, but came through in crunch time. Denver is 10-3 in games decided by seven points or fewer, and Manning said being battle-tested helped them on this night.
With Denver down 13-12 with less than 10 minutes left, cornerback Bradley Roby punched the ball from Fitzgerald Toussaint’s arms and teammate DeMarcus Ware recovered at the Denver 35-yard line.
Then, Manning went to work, driving Denver to its only touchdown.
C.J. Anderson ran it in from the 1, and Demaryius Thomas — who was playing in front of his mother for the first time in his life — caught the 2-point conversion for a 20-13 lead with three minutes remaining.
That was Manning’s 55th game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime, extending one of the dozen NFL records he owns.
Ware’s sack ended Pittsburgh’s next drive and Brandon McManus kicked his fifth field goal, tying the NFL playoff record.
Chris Boswell made a 47-yarder with 19 seconds left, but Anderson recovered the onside kick.
Manning credited Denver’s NFL-best defense for thwarting a team that piled up 34 points on them last month.
“Obviously, down in the fourth quarter and down the home stretch, great play by our defense,” Manning said. “They gave us some good opportunities all day. Pittsburgh did a great job down there in the red zone, keeping us from touchdowns. We had to settle for field goals.
“The best thing we did, we stayed patient all game. We didn’t force anything and we didn’t give them any short fields. Obviously, when we needed it, we had that big drive and we got that touchdown that really put us up.”
Roethlisberger completed 24 of 37 passes for 339 yards despite playing with a sore right shoulder and missing his top receiver — Antonio Brown (concussion) and rusher — DeAngelo Williams (foot). Martavis Bryant had nine catches for 154 yards.
Manning completed 21 of 37 passes for 222 yards. Emmanuel Sanders had five catches for 85 yards, and Anderson ran 15 times for 72 yards.
Manning has said this could very well be his final hurrah after dealing with a left foot injury that forced him to miss six weeks before winning his starting job back.
Now he’s 60 minutes from a fourth Super Bowl, and Brady stands in the way.