CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Peyton Manning isn’t done just yet. Now, the 39-year-old quarterback has another chance to win an NFL championship With Manning’s two touchdown passes to tight end Owen Daniels and a late escape by the Denver Broncos defense, the Broncos defeated the New England Patriots 20-18 in the AFC Championship Game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver, advancing to Super Bowl 50.
“It’s a great honor to be going back to the Super Bowl — playing Super Bowl 50,” Manning said. “I’m really looking forward to it. It’s going to be a fun two weeks.”
They now know their opponent: The Carolina Panthers, who beat the Arizona Cardinals 49-15 in the NFC Championship Game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
Super Bowl 50 is February 7 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California.
Broncos hang on
The Broncos led throughout the afternoon, but it was a nail-biter at the end, as a late comeback attempt by New England fell just short. The Patriots scored with 12 seconds remaining but couldn’t convert on the two-point conversion to force overtime.
It also potentially was the final chapter of an epic rivalry between Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Sunday was the 17th meeting between the surefire hall-of-fame quarterbacks. The match-up was pegged, appropriately, as Brady vs. Manning XVII. Manning still trails Brady 11-6 overall but improved to 3-2 against him in the playoffs.
This will be Manning’s fourth Super Bowl appearance. His lone win was when he was with the Indianapolis Colts, which came in Super Bowl XLI on February 4, 2007, against the Chicago Bears.
Manning turns 40 in March, and while he had not revealed his future plans going into the AFC title game, there had been wide speculation that this season could be his last. Manning’s numbers have dropped (he threw nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions in 10 games during the regular season, a far cry from his hall-of-fame worthy career stats), and his health and arm strength have been concerns. He missed six games this season with a partially torn plantar fascia in his left heel.
But Manning showed he has something left. He came out firing on Sunday, connecting with Daniels for a 21-yard touchdown pass midway through the first quarter. It was just the second passing touchdown at home this season.
Early in the second quarter, Manning found Daniels again for their second touchdown of the day, this one for 12 yards. Manning’s line for the day: 17 of 32 passing for 176 yards and two touchdowns.
“There’s no question this is a sweet day; this was a sweet victory,” Manning said. “To me this victory sort of is a great example of what this entire season has been like. It hasn’t been easy, it’s been a lot of different people stepping up doing their parts at different times.”
It shockingly was Brady, not Manning, who had some terrible numbers on Sunday.
Brady, who coming into this game had been playing some of the best football of his career and is one of the front-runners for the NFL Most Valuable Player award, was intercepted twice in the second quarter. His passer rating was a horrific 18.1 in the first half. Manning’s, comparatively, was 103.8.
But you should never count out Tom Brady.
Despite a putrid first half by the New England Patriots quarterback, Brady recovered in the second and almost forced overtime, finding tight end Rob Gronkowski in the back of the end zone with 12 seconds remaining.
But that’s as close as they would get. Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby picked off Brady’s pass on the two-point conversion attempt. Denver recovered New England’s onside kick to seal the win.
“We could never play on our terms, so it was an uphill battle all day,” Brady said.
Brady finished the day 27 of 56 with 310 yards and one touchdown.
This was Brady’s 10th career AFC Championship Game, the most ever by any quarterback in the Super Bowl era.
Sunday’s Cardinals-Panthers game marked the first time in NFL playoff history that two Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks started against each other. Panthers QB Cam Newton won the Heisman in 2010; Cardinals’ starter Carson Palmer won in 2002.
As for the head-to-head match-up, it was lopsided.
The Panthers — hosting the NFC Championship Game for the first time in franchise history — jumped on the Cardinals early.
Following a 45-yard field goal by Graham Gano, Ted Ginn Jr.’s 22-yard run gave Carolina a 10-0 lead. Later in the period, Newton’s deep pass hit Corey Brown for an 86-yard score to make it 17-0. Newton also added two scores with his legs. Before getting the rest of the night off once the game was out of hand, Newton finished his day 19 of 28 passing for 335 yards. He was responsible for four touchdowns (two passing, two rushing) and had one interception.
Carolina also showed why it led the NFL in the regular season with 39 takeaways, 24 interceptions and a +20 turnover differential.
Palmer was pressured into three first-half turnovers, fumbling twice and also failing to capitalize on the Newton interception, throwing a pick of his own in the end zone just one play later. He also threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter, including pick-six, but the game already was well out of reach by then.
In all, the Cardinals turned the ball over seven times. Six of those were from Palmer (two lost fumbles, four interceptions), who was 23 of 40 for 235 yards passing and one touchdown.