DENVER — This is Peyton Manning’s moment.
The stage is set for the future Hall of Famer and Broncos quarterback to write a fitting end to what could be his final days playing in the NFL. A win today would put him and his teammates in the Super Bowl for the second time in three seasons. It also would bring him one step closer to following the same path as his current general manager, John Elway: going out like a champion.
There’s just one problem.
Before Manning gets the chance to ride off into the Super Bowl sunset, he has to defeat Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.
The Broncos may be playing on their home turf, Sports Authority Field at Mile High, but it’s the Patriots who are the defending Super Bowl champions. At 39, Manning — who missed six games this season because of a foot injury — isn’t the player he once was. Meanwhile, the 38-year-old Brady continues to defy Father Time.
Despite the injuries that plagued the Patriots all season, they never looked lost or out of sync with Brady and coach Bill Belichick running the show. New England did, however, lose to the Broncos, 30-24, in overtime at Mile High on Nov. 29. And the last time these two teams squared off in the conference championship game in January 2014, Denver won, 26-16.
“We have to run the ball for us to stay balanced and for us to be successful this week,” running back Ronnie Hillman said. “That’s what we’re going to do. That’s just what we do and everybody knows it. We just have to hit them in the mouth.”
The Broncos certainly made their feelings about the Patriots known this past week. Defensive end Antonio Smith called Brady a crybaby and fellow lineman Malik Jackson said Brady has thrown “temper tantrums” on the field. Defensive end Derek Wolfe added to the war of words when he told The Denver Post: “I hate everything about them. They’re always in my way. They’re always in my way to get what I want. I’ve got a ton of respect for the whole organization. They’ve got great players — Tom Brady’s a great player. Bill Belichick’s a great coach. I’ve got a ton of respect for them. I just hate them.”
The Manning-Brady Bowl is expected to be a game for the ages. Even the players know it.
“These are two first-ballot Hall of Famers,” Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. “These are guys that the game will always speak about . . . It’s definitely unique and special.”
But don’t expect the two quarterbacks’ teammates to get caught up in the hype. Asked if he ever pauses to watch Brady and Manning, Patriots defensive back Logan Ryan said: “If I do that, it’s six over my head, so no. I’ll do it afterward, but during the game, I’m kind of zoned in.”
The Patriots are seeking the ninth conference title in their history and, eventually, their fifth Super Bowl victory during the Brady-Belichick era. The Broncos hope to win their eighth AFC title and want redemption for their 43-8 loss to Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium.
Manning may not be the player he once was, but the Patriots offered nothing but praise this week. “I have a lot of respect for him,” Patriots defensive lineman Alan Branch said. “Just with everything he has done throughout his career and the way he’s playing now, still, is impressive.”
Brady also called Manning “an incredible player . . . one of the best to ever play.”
Asked what it’s like to watch them compete, Ryan said: “You see they’re two great competitors, they’re leaders of their teams.” But, he added: “We like our guy. We like ‘12.’ ”