DENVER - For the 15th time in their Hall of Fame careers, it will be Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning, another chapter in what likely will go down as the greatest quarterback rivalry in NFL history.
Brady did his part Saturday night by helping the Patriots to a resounding win over the Colts in an AFC divisional playoff game, and Manning followed through on his mission by leading the Broncos to a 24-17 win over the Chargers Sunday night at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
The two will face off here Sunday in the AFC Championship Game for the right to advance to Super Bowl XLVIII against the Seahawks or 49ers at MetLife Stadium on Feb. 2.
There could not be a better lead-in to the NFL's biggest game. But Manning wasn't looking that far ahead Sunday night. He didn't really want to say much about the impending showdown against Brady.
"We're going to address that on Wednesday," Manning said. "This was a pretty intense game. We'll enjoy this one. You're supposed to enjoy these wins. They're hard to come by."
Manning's first playoff win in four years helped relieve some of the pain he felt last year, when the Broncos lost at home in double overtime to the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens in the divisional round.
"I think the team needs to be commended for even getting to this point," Manning said. "There are a lot of teams that had disappointing losses last year. Atlanta. Washington. Everybody says in locker rooms, 'Let's get back next year.' It doesn't just happen. It's hard to get back. We are proud and happy to be at this point, and we certainly want to keep it going."
Manning paid tribute to Brady for being "an outstanding quarterback for such a long time." But he said his focus won't be on that marquee matchup.
"The game next week is the Broncos versus the Patriots," Manning said. "I know there will be some individual matchups that will get headlines, but it will be a battle between two good teams that have been through a lot, that have overcome a lot to get to this point. That's where my focus will be, trying to help the Broncos get a win against the Patriots."
Manning, 37, was asked about a report that suggested his future will be determined by an examination of his neck after the season. Manning, who missed the 2011 season after undergoing four neck surgeries, was asked if the uncertainty is weighing on his mind.
"It's really not," he said. "What's weighing on my mind is how soon I can get a Bud Light in my mouth. That's priority No. 1. It was an intense game and up and down and a lot of emotions. That question is way far ahead. I am not there."
Brady leads Manning 10-4 in head-to-head matchups. They have met three times in the playoffs and Brady has won twice, including the 2003 AFC Championship Game. Manning won the 2006 AFC title game, and each won the Super Bowl after beating his rival.
Manning completed 25 of 36 passes for 230 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception. He led the Broncos to a 17-0 edge early in the third quarter, although the margin could have been bigger. In the final seconds of the first half, his pass in the end zone caromed off wideout Eric Decker and into linebacker Donald Butler's hands.
The game seemed to be in hand when Manning drove Denver 81 yards for a touchdown and a 24-7 lead with 8:12 left. But Philip Rivers led the Chargers to 10 unanswered points to make it 24-17 with less than four minutes left. Manning needed a big drive to keep San Diego from getting a chance to tie it -- and he came through when his team needed him most.
On a third-and-17 from the Broncos' 20, he waited for tight end Julius Thomas to get open down the right sideline, then fired a perfect pass that Thomas caught just in bounds at the 41 to keep the drive going. Then he completed another critical third-down pass to Thomas, and Denver ran out the clock.
"Third-and-17, you know you're going to have to hold the ball a little longer just to give guys a chance to get down the field," Manning said. "It was the perfect call against the perfect coverage. It certainly came at a good time. It's something we worked on, and it was nice we were able to execute it."
And now it's on to next week for another meeting with Brady. More history to be made.