DENVER -- It was less than 18 months ago, after a training camp practice on a warm, late summer day, that Peyton Manning began a story.
"The perfect time to tell this story is after we win the Super Bowl this year," is how he began that tale, about how a pass thrown in secret to his friend Todd Helton at Coors Field nosedived into the ground. That was, technically, the first pass Manning threw in Denver, while he was trying to avoid more surgery to repair his neck, while he was locked out of Indianapolis as owners and players negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement. This was long before he could have ever known that his career would take a dramatic, wrenching detour toward the shadows of the mountains.
The only thing off about that story was its timing. Because the perfect time to tell it, it turns out, is now.
Three years removed from a pass he was too embarrassed to let anybody else see, less than two since his painful and surreal journey through free agency -- at one point days after his release from the Colts, he told his father Archie he did not want to make any more visits and was going home, forcing Archie to ask where home was -- Manning is now on the cusp of tying his career in a beautiful, neat bow.
On Sunday, playing perhaps the best postseason game of his career in the best season of his life, Manning propelled the Broncos past his eternal nemesis, the New England Patriots, 26-16, and into the Super Bowl. It will be Manning's third Super Bowl appearance and his chance to finally satisfy those who suggest that for him to be considered the greatest quarterback in history, he must win more than one Lombardi Trophy.
But whether the Broncos win or lose Feb. 2 at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, the arrival at the game has been affirmation enough of the remarkable renaissance of Manning's career, one whose outcome was so in doubt that when he completed his first respectable pass in Denver's training camp, he took a video of the film with his phone and texted it to those who had helped him. He did not know then if he would ever approach another Super Bowl.
"Nobody could give me a real timetable or prediction as far as physical recovery," Manning said Sunday afternoon. "I had never switched teams before. I had no idea how long it would take to form some chemistry offensively, to get comfortable with the culture."
On that summer day, Manning had spent extra time working with wide receivers Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas to try to expedite that acclimation process. On Sunday against New England, Manning completed 32 of his 43 passes for 400 yards and two touchdowns, and he was not sacked in a game that largely turned on an injury to Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib. The Patriots had been riddled by injury all season, but this one was too much to bear at this critical moment. Talib was to guard Thomas all day, and once the cornerback went down -- ironically on a play in which former Patriot Wes Welker collided with Talib in the middle of the field -- Thomas was sprung loose, finishing with seven catches for 134 yards and one touchdown.
There was, as there has been with most things Manning this season, a perfect symmetry about the outcome. Manning and Tom Brady are wound around each other, their careers and legacies measured through the lens of their rivalry. Brady has largely dominated it, and Manning said the Patriots have been so successful that the AFC championship could be named for them.
But Manning has now won two of his three AFC title clashes versus New England. The last time was in the 2006 AFC Championship Game, and two weeks later, Manning won his only Super Bowl. He lost one, too, to New Orleans in the 2009 season. But the Patriots have lost two Super Bowls in the intervening years, too, losing both times to the New York Giants.
At the end of the 2011 season, the one Manning missed with his neck injury, he snuck into the NFC Championship Game in San Francisco, not telling his brother Eli that he would be there. On Sunday, Eli did the same for him, standing beside his older brother as he dressed after the game, advising coach John Fox to prepare the Broncos as if they will play next Sunday, because Super Bowl week is chaos.
Peyton Manning was already on to the next game by then, too, as he knotted his tie and smoothed his hair. He wanted to know what Fox's plan for the week would be.
There is a feeling about Manning this year, a push and pull. He has said often that he wants to enjoy the preparation and all the moments because he knows his career is winding down. But that has also lent this season an undeniable urgency, as he has sought, at once, to both revel in and maximize his time left as a player.
On Saturday, Manning's older brother, Cooper, sent Peyton a message: "Hey, you've come this far. Go ahead and pretend you're a 10-year-old playing in the front yard."
"That's what it looked like today," Cooper said postgame. "He would never admit to having fun. That would be too laissez faire for him. But he still has that young-kid-in-the-front-yard attitude about him. I think it is a little special especially with the clock ticking a little bit."
The clock ticks louder for Manning as each month passes, which explains why his father admitted to being the most nervous person in the stadium Sunday. Archie was so worried about good luck that when he realized he had paced his way into standing in the same spot where he stood last week when the San Diego Chargers recovered an onside kick -- just as the Patriots were likely to attempt one -- he moved quickly to get away.
On Sunday, as he wrapped up his news conference, Peyton Manning said that he tries hard not to get too high or too low. He's had reason to be both, of course, since he has come back -- the high of being back in the league, the low of last year's stunning playoff loss.
But back on that summer day, Manning told me for a story for The New York Times, what he hoped to do in his comeback.
"I'd like to be the player that everybody thinks they are used to seeing," Manning said then.
He has, already, been better.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.