DENVER -- People often ask Denver Broncos chief football decision-maker John Elway why he left the comforts of the life of a Hall of Fame quarterback, and an array of successful businesses, to come back to the game.
Just as people often ask Peyton Manning why, after spinal fusion surgery that kept him out of the 2011 season and a left foot injury that kept him out of seven starts this season, he decided to keep pushing to get back on the field.
The answer for both men played out Sunday as the Broncos earned the franchise's eighth trip to the Super Bowl, the second in four seasons, with a 20-18 victory over the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Manning finished 17-for-31 for 176 yards and two touchdowns.
The defense also did its part with two interceptions and four sacks of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. The defense also prevented what would have been a tying two-point conversion with 12 seconds left. The Patriots were 2-of-15 on third downs (13.3 percent), their worst third-down conversion rate in a postseason game in the Brady/coach Bill Belichick era. In their two losses to the Broncos this season, the Patriots were 4-of-28 on third downs (14.3 percent).
The Broncos' victory is a chance for Elway to keep a promise he made to Manning in 2012, that if he signed with the Broncos, Elway would do everything in his power "to make sure he finishes his career the way I finished mine."
Elway's finish was the most coveted in the athletic world, back-to-back championships in his final two seasons. He raised the Lombardi Trophy and rode off into the football sunset. Manning is 39 years old and even he knows his career sunset is approaching. He has often said, "I can see the light at the end of the tunnel."
He has had ankle, thigh, shoulder, rib and foot injuries over the past three seasons, leading defensive coordinators to challenge him like never before. They have dared Manning to throw, with the idea he could no longer beat them on his own. It's a concept that might have seemed ludicrous in seasons gone by.
It has been a bumpy ride for Manning to this point, perhaps the bumpiest of his storied career. He took a $4 million pay cut this season after the Broncos had asked for a bigger one. Manning has even had critics question his football ability and personal character this season.
Yet, here he is with another chance at a Super Bowl title. He has the best defense he has ever had along for the ride. And he is surrounded by players who want to win a ring for him.
What were they thinking? The Patriots' belief in Brady is certainly understandable, but with a Broncos' home crowd already in a frenzy, the Patriots allowed the football citizens to be at their throaty best. The Patriots won the coin flip and special-teams captain Matthew Slater said loudly: "We want the ball." The Broncos' defense took the field, the crowd went bananas, and after one New England first down, the Broncos held and forced a punt. The Broncos then took their first possession 82 yards in 11 plays for a 7-0 lead.
One reason to get excited: The Broncos' defense has been title-worthy for much of this season and picked the best time for what might have been its best wall-to-wall effort of the season. The Broncos consistently got pressure on Brady, led by Von Miller, Malik Jackson, Derek Wolfe and DeMarcus Ware. With 10 minutes left in the game, Brady was 15-of-31 for 158 yards with two interceptions. He was sacked four times.
One reason to panic: The injuries just keep happening at safety. With David Bruton Jr. already on injured reserve, the Broncos' T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart have each missed time this season because of ankle and hamstring injuries. Stewart left Sunday's game late in the third quarter because of a right knee injury on a 3-yard run by James White. And then Ward left with just over eight minutes after it looked as if he reinjured his ankle. At game's end, Josh Bush and Shiloh Keo, both signed late in the season, were in the base defense at the position.
Fantasy watch: The Broncos looked to tight end Owen Daniels early Sunday. Manning hit Daniels for two touchdowns -- a 21-yard TD in the first quarter and a 12-yard score in the second quarter.
Ouch: In addition to the injuries to Ward and Stewart -- both players looked as if they were injured seriously enough to be question marks moving forward -- Wolfe briefly left the game late in the third quarter but returned in the fourth quarter.
Game ball: Miller might have had the best game of his still-young professional life. He had an interception that set up the Broncos' first touchdown to go with a Broncos single-game postseason record 2.5 sacks. Set to be an unrestricted free agent at season's end, Miller presented himself as an impact player in the biggest kind of game.