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 a blustery Sunday.
That set up an AFC championship game next weekend in Denver against Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
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 v Magic or Ali v Frazier.
“It’ll be the Broncos v the Patriots,” Manning said of the AFC’s top two seeds, both 13-4. “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.”
Football fans won’t wait that long. Brady has won 11 of the 16 meetings against Manning’s teams, 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.
The 17th chapter 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 back from a two-touchdown, fourth-quarter deficit against New England on 29 November 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 after shaking Brady’s hand in pregame warmups.
He returned to action in the season finale, his cameo propelling the Broncos past San Diego and into the AFC’s No1 seed that ensures Brady & Co will have to play at altitude in their fifth consecutive trip to the conference championship game.
Just before kickoff Sunday, a strong wind blew over the Rocky Mountains, wreaking havoc on passes and kicks alike, although Brandon McManus tied an NFL playoff record by converting all five of his field goal attempts and Chris Boswell made all three of his.
Manning’s team-mates 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 blustery night.
With Denver down 13-12 with less than 10 minutes left, cornerback Bradley Roby, burned time and again, punched the ball from Fitzgerald Toussaint’s arms and teammate DeMarcus Ware recovered at the Denver 35-yard line.
“I could have protected the ball a little bit more,” said Toussaint, who scored his first career TD in the first half. “Obviously, they made a great play. You’ve got to give them credit, but in that situation, I put it on myself.”
Manning went to work, driving Denver to its only touchdown, a one-yard run by CJ Anderson, followed by Demaryius Thomas’ catch on the two-pointer that put Denver ahead 20-13 with three minutes left.
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 McManus kicked his fifth field goal, joking it was such a tricky crosswind that he just kept aiming “at the guy holding the beer in the top left corner.”
Chris Boswell made a 47-yarder with 19 seconds left, but Anderson, who gained 72 yards on 15 carries, 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, including five to Emmanuel Sanders for 85 yards.
Manning, two months shy of 40, has said this could very well be his final hurrah, and he’s 60 minutes from another chance to win his second Super Bowl ring.
Brady — who else? — stands in his way.