DENVER - Peyton Manning wasn't sure this day would ever come again, not after all he'd been through -- four surgical procedures on his neck and the need to start a new football life when the Colts released him after a 14-year run.
But here he was, putting the finishing touches on a masterful performance in a 26-16 win over the Patriots and fellow quarterback legend Tom Brady on Sunday in the AFC Championship Game.
Now his journey is nearly complete. Manning is back in the Super Bowl for the third time, only the third quarterback to lead two different teams to the NFL's showcase event.
A win in Super Bowl XLVIII on Feb. 2 at MetLife Stadium, and Manning will become the first quarterback in NFL history to win the Super Bowl with two different teams.
"I was truly taking things slowly, kind of phase by phase,'' said Manning, who was 32-for-43 for 400 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 118.4 rating. "Nobody could give me a real timetable or prediction as far as physical recovery. I had never switched teams before. I had no idea how long it would take to form some chemistry to get comfortable with the culture.''
It didn't take him long at all. A year after suffering an agonizing loss to the Ravens in a divisional playoff game, Manning has beaten the AFC West rival Chargers and the Patriots in this year's playoffs.
He had won only four of 14 head-to-head matchups against Brady, but he outplayed his counterpart this time, building a 23-3 lead early in the fourth quarter and withstanding a mild comeback by the Patriots that fizzled by the end.
"I have put in a lot of hard work. A lot of people -- teammates, coaches and trainers -- have helped me along the way,'' Manning said. "So we've definitely come a long way in the last two years and bouncing back from last year's playoff loss to put ourselves in this position. It feels very gratifying.''
But there isn't a complete sense of relief yet. That would come only with a win at MetLife Stadium in the first outdoor Super Bowl in a northern city.
"There is still one more game to play,'' he said. "I think we will enjoy this and you definitely have to take time to savor the moment. I know I certainly will, being in my 16th season and going to my third Super Bowl. I know how hard it is to get there. It's extremely difficult. You do have to take a moment and enjoy the locker room with your teammates. Starting tomorrow, we'll start preparing.''
Manning had his way almost the entire game. The Patriots were unable to stop him, especially after their top cornerback, Aqib Talib, left the game with a second-quarter knee injury. Manning was able to use the middle of the field to his advantage and completed at least one pass to eight different receivers.
Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas led the way with 134 receiving yards and a touchdown on seven receptions. Tight end Julius Thomas had a team-high eight catches for 85 yards.
"It was amazing. [Manning] threw for 400 yards. What can you say?'' Demaryius Thomas said. "AFC Championship Game. He was amazing. I've been saying that this whole year because he did it a lot. I take my hat off to Peyton.''
Brady, meanwhile, struggled against Denver's resurgent defense. It didn't help that the Patriots started all eight of their drives at their 20. All of the Broncos' kickoffs were touchbacks, and their only punt went for a touchback.
Brady finished 24-for-38 for 277 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. Running back LeGarrette Blount, who rushed for 166 yards and four touchdowns in last week's divisional playoff win over the Colts, had only six yards on five carries. The Patriots were held to 64 rushing yards overall.
"We just didn't make enough plays,'' said Brady, who mostly was forced to hit underneath passes to his injury-ravaged receiving corps. Slot receiver Julian Edelman led the Patriots -- who were without Rob Gronkowski (out for the season with a knee injury) and Kenbrell Thompkins (concussion) -- with 10 catches for 89 yards and a touchdown.
Brady threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Edelman with 9:26 remaining, and even after the Broncos' Matt Prater kicked a 54-yard field goal, the Patriots were in position to make it a one-score game when Brady capped an 80-yard drive with a 5-yard TD run. That made it 26-16 with 3:07 to play, but on the two-point conversion, running back Shane Vereen was stopped short of the goal line.
The Patriots tried an onside kick, but Denver recovered and ran out the clock to give Manning one more shot at a Super Bowl title.
"It's an exciting feeling,'' Manning said. "I think it's a hard conference to win. You feel like you've done something to win the championship. You realize you still want to win one more game, but you do take a moment to realize we've done something special here. But you certainly want to win one more.''
The opportunity to do just that comes on Feb. 2 at MetLife Stadium, where a chance at a piece of history awaits Manning yet again.