DENVER — Peyton Manning made sure Tom Brady didn’t have the chance to mount another comeback.
Manning led six scoring drives, finishing two with touchdown passes and the Denver Broncos beat the New England Patriots 26-16 on Sunday in the AFC final to advance to the Super Bowl for the first time in 15 years.
The Broncos’ Super Bowl opponent will be the Seattle Seahawks, who beat the San Francisco 49ers 23-17 in the NFC Championship game.
Manning outdueled Brady in the 15th meeting between the two elite quarterbacks a few yards at a time, chewing up the clock with sustained drives and building a lead that in the end was too big to overcome. The tactics prevented a repeat of the Patriots’ 34-31 overtime win against the Broncos on Nov. 24 in which Brady rallied New England from 24 points down.
“To keep Tom Brady on the sidelines is a good thing,” said Manning, whose Broncos dominated possession of the ball, especially early before finishing with a 35:44 to 24:16 advantage. “That is something that you try to do when you’re playing against the Patriots. It would have been nice to score more TDs than field goals, but it was enough to win.”
Brady still holds a 10-5 overall edge but Manning evened the score in the postseason at 2-2 with the victory in the AFC title game, grabbing the chance to play the winner of the NFC title game played later Sunday between San Francisco and Seattle.
“It is certainly very rewarding when you put a lot of hard work into an offseason, into a regular season and it pays dividends with a huge win,” Manning said. “This team has been through a lot, we’ve overcome a number of obstacles this year, so it is gratifying to be a part of this team. We have kept our nose to the grindstone, kept persevering.”
Manning completed 32 of 43 passes for 400 yards and had scorings pass of 3 yards to wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and a 1-yarder to tight end Jacob Tamme.
Manning also engineered four other scoring drives resulting in field goals by Matt Prater in leading the Broncos to their first Super Bowl since John Elway, now the team’s chief of football operations, led them to back-to-back championships following the 1997 and 1998 seasons.
“There’s still one more game to play,” Manning said. “We’re going to enjoy this. 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. You have to take a moment and enjoy the locker room with your teammates and enjoy the end of the night with your family and friends. I think it’s important to do that and I will do that. Starting tomorrow, we’ll start preparing.”
The Patriots were tripped up a step short of the Super Bowl for the second year in a row.
“We just have to come to terms with the fact that it was a good run but it is over,” said Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount, who was held to 6 yards on five carries after running wild the previous week, with four touchdowns and 166 yards rushing in the divisional round win over Indianapolis.
Up by 10 at halftime, the Broncos built a 23-3 lead, opening the third quarter by grinding out a 13-play march culminating with Thomas’ leaping catch in the end zone in front of cornerback Alfonzo Dennard.
Manning led another long drive in which the Broncos’ settled for a 20-yard field goal by Prater after his third-down pass in the end zone for tight end Julius Thomas fell incomplete.
Trying to get back in the game, the Patriots went for it on a fourth-and-3 play at the Broncos’ 29-yard line midway through the third quarter but defensive lineman Terrance Knighton sacked Brady for the defensive stop.
The Patriots made a late push in the fourth quarter, with Brady connecting on a 7-yard scoring pass to wide receiver Julian Edelman and then scrambling 5 yards for another touchdown around Prater’s fourth field goal, a 54-yarder with 7:00 remaining.
But Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker recovered the Patriots’ onside kick with 3:06 left to play and Manning ran out the rest of the clock, with the critical play coming on a fourth-and-1 deep inside Patriots territory with Montee Ball running for the first down to deny the Patriots a last crack at the ball.
“It is always a tough way to end a season like that,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “Coach (John) Fox, his staff and obviously the players, they did a good job, did a better job than we did, I thought we played hard. I thought we were ready. We just didn’t make enough plays.”
Manning made more than enough.
“It was amazing,” Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas said. “He threw for 400 yards. What can you say? AFC championship game. He was amazing.”
Manning’s last play sealed the win when he took a knee to run out the final moments. Then, he sought out Brady.
“I just wished him luck,” Brady said of his midfield meeting with his Broncos counterpart. “I have a lot of respect for him He’s a great player, competitor. Certainly he’s a great player and he played great today.”
Manning said he let Brady know that he was a class act.
“Tom congratulated me and wished me luck,” Manning said. “I’ve said to him a number of times what a great player that I think he is and he was very classy in his conversation with me.”
Prater’s second field goal, a 35-yarder with 25 seconds left in the second quarter, stretched Denver’s lead to 13-3 at halftime. Manning drove the Broncos to the Patriots’ 21-yard line before his third-down swing pass to running back Knowshon Moreno came up a yard short of the first down, and the Broncos opted to go again with the sure-footed Prater, whose 27-yarder earlier accounted for the game’s first score.
Stifling the Patriots attack with a stout defense and by keeping the ball away from Brady with long, well-executed drives, Manning culminated a 93-yard drive with a 1-yard scoring pass to Tamme.
A third-down defensive holding penalty against rookie cornerback Logan Ryan extended the Broncos’ 15-play touchdown drive — which stood out as the second-longest drive by Denver in terms of plays this season.
Moreno broke off a 28-yard run to New England’s 11-yard line and three more runs advanced the ball to the 1, where Manning hit the wide-open Tamme on a play-action pass that caught the Patriots’ defense overplaying the run.
The Patriots got on the board with a 47-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski with just under 3 minutes remaining in the second quarter. Broncos defensive end Robert Ayers forced the field goal when he broke through to sack Brady for an 11-yard loss on a third-and-8 play.
NOTES: Former Broncos coach Josh McDaniels, now the Patriots offensive coordinator, was booed heavily during pre-game warm-ups when he stepped onto field with QB Tom Brady. … TE Jacob Tamme’s scoring catch for Denver was his first career postseason touchdown reception. … Broncos DE Robert Ayers’ sack of Brady was his third in the playoffs, tying him with Neil Smith for third on the team’s all-time postseason list. … Brady lost for the first time in eight games against a defense led by Jack Del Rio, in his second season as the Broncos’ defensive coordinator. … Patriots CB Aquib Talib did not return after suffering a second quarter knee injury. … Denver RB Knowshon Moreno left the game late with a chest injury.