Super Bowl trip is Peyton Manning's top comeback yet

Peyton Manning's season -- a season that once appeared destined to be remembered as a sad end to a remarkable career -- will now extend to the Super Bowl. Go figure.

The Broncos beat the Patriots20-18 in Sunday's AFC Championship Game and Manning -- while not the star -- certainly did his part. The 39-year-old quarterback completed 17 of 32 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns, playing smart, largely mistake-free football. Manning didn't throw an interception for the second consecutive week, a real achievement considering he almost led the NFL in picks over just nine starts during the regular season.

The Broncos' postseason gameplan remains clear. Stay conservative on offense, win on special teams and lean on the defense to dictate the flow and make game-changing plays. Manning is far from the focal point here, and he deserves credit for accepting his new place in the pecking order.

Manning was at his best early Sunday. On Denver's first possession, he went 4-of-6 for 60 yards, finishing up with a 21-yard dart to Owen Daniels for a touchdown. His second score came early in the second quarter after a Brady interception set up Denver deep in Patriots territory. Manning missed an open Emmanuel Sanders for a would-be touchdown on first down, but found Daniels again on 3rd-and-6, this time a pretty rainbow into the back corner of the end zone.

That was just about all for Denver's offense, as Manning remains a very limited player in his current state. The Broncos' offense went to sleep in the second half and failed to pick up a single first down on three consecutive fourth-quarter possessions, a costly stall that set the stage for Brady's frenzied final touchdown drive. There wasn't any indication Denver's offense was ready to spring to life if New England had been able to force overtime.

But they didn't.

If this is the final time Brady and Manning meet, this game serves as a fine final act. Brady will hold the edge 11-6 in 17 games, but Manning will have gone 3-1 against the Patriots in four AFC Championship Game tilts. That is not insignificant, especially given Manning's reputation as a player who shrinks in January.

You can argue Manning is playing with house money now. He's the first quarterback in NFL history to go to the Super Bowl multiple times with different teams. He'll be starting in the Super Bowl in the same season he suffered a debilitating foot injury and was benched for performance reasons. The Broncos will be an underdog no matter who comes out of the AFC. Hell, the win even triggered a $2 million escalator in his contract. Literal house money. 

Regardless of what happens in Super Bowl 50, Manning has Sunday. A fourth conference championship on his resume and one more win against his greatest rival. The Sheriff drifted into the football abyss and managed to find his way home. Consider it his greatest comeback ever.

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