DENVER – Peyton Manning gets to face his biggest nemesis for one more shot at glory.
Get ready for Brady-Manning XVII.
The NFL’s only five-time MVP 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 New England Patriots.
What a fitting feature to an 18th season for Manning that’s been equal parts trying and triumphant, filled with injuries and insults, rehab and redemption.
And yet another rescue.
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 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 certainly won’t wait that long.
Brady has won 11 of the 16 meetings against Manning, but they’re 2-2 in the playoffs, including Denver’s 26-16 win in the conference championship game two years ago.
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 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 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 No. 1 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 teammates dropped seven passes but also 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.
“Perfect timing,” Roby said.
Toussaint, who scored his first career TD in the first half, took it hard and blamed himself.
“This is not all on him by any means,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s on all of us.”
After Toussaint’s fumble, Manning went to work, driving Denver to its only touchdown, a 1-yard run by C.J. Anderson, followed by Demaryius Thomas’ catch on the 2-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.”
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 and an offense that stayed patient.
“It was tough all night,” Manning said. “They’re a good defense, playing really well for the past number of weeks. So real credit to them. We had some good field position early and we had to settle for field goals. I give them credit for that. Field goals are better than no points, but we knew eventually that we needed to get a touchdown drive.”
They got that chance thanks to Roby.
“Roby got that left hand to knock the ball out and D-Ware was the man on the spot,” cornerback Aqib Talib said. “And the offense ran it down their throat. Tough team. We don’t quit until it is zero-zero-zero.”
“We’re relentless,” agreed Anderson. “We fight. We grind. We just keep fighting.”
Just like the Steelers.
Roethlisberger led an offense that had several big moments – their top eight plays netted 275 yards and their other 51 snaps resulted in just 118 yards.
“You’re right, they’re a big-play football team,” Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said. “But the good news is that we settled down defensively and found a way to sit there and hold them to 16 points.”
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.
Two months shy of 40, Manning 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.
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