DENVER -- Most of the stadium lights were already out Sunday night and the parking lots were emptying, but Peyton Manning was back briefly on the sideline in his suit, glancing over his shoulder, watching his son scamper around the end zone.
It has been four long years -- through a crushing Super Bowl loss and an unfathomable first-round playoff exit, through a career-threatening injury and the wrenching departure from the only team he had ever known, through a relocation and, exactly one year ago, an excruciating renewal of his postseason history -- since Manning had been able to revel in even an early playoff victory.
The yoke of expectation and the burden of disappointment had attached themselves to Manning for years, unfairly in many cases. So there was no missing the significance of Sunday's 24-17 victory over the San Diego Chargers to set up the AFC Championship Game matchup everyone had wanted all along, the 15th renewal of Manning's rivalry with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
It means Manning isn't one-and-done for a ninth time. It means the Broncos will host the conference championship game next Sunday afternoon, an important accomplishment for Denver because Manning and Brady have split the two epic championship games they've played, with the home team winning each and then going on to capture the Super Bowl. It means Manning, in his gray suit, with his family nearby and his young son signaling a touchdown in the end zone a few yards away, has forestalled for at least another week any more questions about the fleeting time he has left to play, about how many more passes he might have to perfectly place to secure a victory, about how many more chances like this he might get.
He might not get many more, and certainly not against his rival and friend Brady. Their meetings have defined their generation of football, and while Manning has been the dominant regular-season player, it is Brady's Super Bowl victories against which Manning has been measured. If that has created undue pressure for Manning, he will not acknowledge it. Last week, Manning said that as he has gotten older, he has tried to enjoy even the grinding preparation for games more. "The light is at the end of the tunnel," he said, conceding that his career is in its latter stages. But Manning has been in good humor, too. And on Sunday night, asked if an upcoming scheduled exam of his neck weighs on his mind, his lighthearted response revealed just how much relief he must have felt that his uncertain future would have to wait.
"What's weighing on my mind is how soon I can get a Bud Light in my mouth," Manning said to laughter. "That's priority number one. It was an intense game and up and down and a lot of emotions. Even the Patriots (game) is (too far) ahead. And that question is way far ahead. I am not there."
Where he is now is back where he wanted to be when he returned from the injury last season: with a chance to win another Super Bowl, on a team that learned from the mistakes of last year's double-overtime loss to the Ravens and finished the job on Sunday.
The Broncos had taken a 24-7 lead with 8:12 remaining on the back of a balanced offensive attack, although they had been less than crisp -- bedeviled by dropped passes, a fumble by Julius Thomas and an end-zone interception. But after Philip Rivers had sliced through the Broncos' defense once, then did it again after San Diego recovered an onside kick, the Broncos were faced with a strikingly similar situation to the one they were in a year ago to the day: trying to preserve a one-touchdown lead with just a few minutes to go.
Last year, the Broncos played conservatively, running the ball to try to run out the clock. The tactic failed miserably, opening the door for Joe Flacco's 70-yard touchdown heave over Rahim Moore's head that sent the game to overtime. This year, there was no such restraint. The game was in the hands it always belonged in, the ones that set the touchdown and passing yards records during the regular season.
And so they threw, as the Broncos had done all year, to set the scoring record and now to save their season. On third-and-17, Manning threw a deep pass on the right sideline, where Julius Thomas dragged his right foot for the first down. Three plays later, he hit Thomas again, this time to the short right side of the field for another first down that allowed the clock to wind down.
This victory was not the product of one of Manning's aerial attacks -- he had just 230 passing yards -- but among the recriminations after the loss to the Ravens, the Broncos' coaching staff had been criticized for how conservatively they had approached that game. Their reservations were gone on Sunday, although coach John Fox would not say that he was more aggressive than last year.
"I'm not going to bite on that one, other than I think you kind of adjust to your football team as you go," he said. "Our guys have proved to be pretty efficient."
That, of course, is a wild understatement, maybe the last one we'll hear in a week that will center on one of the greatest quarterback rivalries in football history.
When the teams played in late November on a cold Foxborough night, the game was noteworthy for the Patriots' second-half comeback from 24 points down at halftime, and for Bill Belichick giving Manning the ball first in overtime, but forcing him to drive into the wind. Manning could not, and the Pats ultimately prevailed, establishing a narrative that Manning chafed at about his perceived frailties in cold and wind.
He has chafed no less at the idea that he has not risen to the biggest moments in his career. He will have another one this Sunday, the next on a list that shortens with the inevitability of that light he sees at the end of the tunnel, facing the one player of his era against whom he can be fairly measured.
But for a little bit, as the shadows crept across the field and the workers began scrubbing clean the luxury boxes above him, Manning lived up to one expectation he has put on himself -- to enjoy these moments, however few of them remain.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.