DENVER – The stage is set for Peyton Manning to write a fitting end to what could be his final days playing in the NFL. A victory Sunday would put the future Hall of Fame quarterback and his Denver Broncos teammates in the Super Bowl for the second time in three seasons. It would bring him one step closer to potentially following the same path as his current general manager, John Elway: going out like a champion.
There's just one problem: He has to defeat Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.
The Broncos might be playing on their home turf, but the Patriots are the defending Super Bowl champions. At 39, Manning — who missed six games this season because of injury — isn't the player he once was. Meanwhile, the 38-year-old Brady continues to defy Father Time.
Despite the injuries that plagued the Patriots all season, they never looked lost or out of sync with Brady and coach Bill Belichick running the show. However, New England did lose at Denver 30-24 in overtime on Nov. 29, when Brock Osweiler was playing for Manning. And the last time these two teams squared off in the conference championship game, two years ago, Denver won 26-16.
"We just have to hit them in the mouth," Denver running back Ronnie Hillman said.
The perennial AFC powers will be trying to build upon their storied legacies. The Patriots are seeking their ninth conference title and, eventually, their fifth Super Bowl during the Brady-Belichick era. The Broncos are looking to win their eighth AFC title and want redemption for their 43-8 loss to Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Manning might not be the player he once was, and there is surely more compassion for his situation than at any time in his previous 16 matchups with Brady. In those games, it was strength vs. strength, with Brady holding the decisive edge with an 11-5 career record. But they are 2-2 in the playoffs.
Both men certainly appreciate what this rivalry has meant to them, and both expressed themselves perfectly when asked about it this week.
"I've felt very fortunate to have played 18 years like I have, and I know how hard I've worked to play this long," Manning said. "So when I look across at the New England Patriots and see that Tom Brady is their quarterback, I just know how hard he's worked as well, and to play as well as he has over the course of his career, and the success that he's had and the team success, I just have a lot of respect for him — and he's earned that respect."
Said Brady of Manning: "I think just his consistency, the durability, his ability to always seem to come through. He's just been an incredible player and incredible leader for his team. There have been so many games as a team he's been a part of that they've won. So, you can see that he leads a great team."