DENVER — Peyton Manning stuffed the football into his helmet and handed it to an equipment man for safekeeping.
The connection: flawless, as usual.
The keepsake: certainly one he'll want to hang on to.
The Broncos quarterback had an answer for everyone Sunday — from Tom Brady to the Patriots defense to anyone who thought he couldn't win the big one.
Manning is headed to New York for the Super Bowl after another impeccably crafted victory — this time 26-16 over New England in Sunday's AFC Championship Game.
"Being in my 16th season, going to my third Super Bowl, I know how hard it is to get there," Manning, 37, said.
Especially this time.
Only three years ago, he could barely grip a ball as he started the long comeback from surgeries that ravaged his neck and nerve endings. And only 53 weeks ago, he had a devastating loss to Baltimore in the division playoffs.
But Manning will get his chance for a second Super Bowl ring, after all. He'll try to become the first starting quarterback to win one with two different teams, Feb. 2 at the Meadowlands against NFC champion Seattle in a meeting of No. 1 postseason seeds.
"He's been remarkable," said Broncos coach John Fox, who also led the Panthers to Super Bowl XXXVIII 10 years ago. "It's unprecedented what he did."
After packing away his football, Manning ran to the 30-yard line to shake hands with Brady. A bit later in the locker room, he celebrated with his father, Archie, and brothers Cooper and Eli, the Giants quarterback who surprised Peyton much the way Peyton surprised him by showing up at the NFC title game two years ago.
The Indy-turned-Denver quarterback improved to 5-10 lifetime against Brady, but he is now 2-1 in AFC title games.
"I have a lot of respect for him," Brady said. "Certainly, he's a great player, and he played great today."
Though Manning threw for 400 yards, it was more dink-and-dunk than a fireworks show in this, the 15th installment between the NFL's two best quarterbacks of their generation. Manning set up four Matt Prater field goals and had two long, meticulous and mistake-free touchdown drives.
He geared down the no-huddle, hurry-up offense that helped him set records for touchdown passes and yardage this season. The result: 93- and 80-yard touchdown drives that each lasted more than seven minutes; they were the two longest, time-wise, of the season for the Broncos (15-3), the highest-scoring team in history.
The Broncos held the ball for 35:44 and were 7 for 13 on third-down conversions.
"To keep Tom Brady on the sideline is a good thing," Manning said. "That's something you try to do when you're playing the Patriots."
Manning capped the second long drive with a 3-yard pass to receiver Demaryius Thomas, who beat overmatched cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and left his feet to make the catch. It gave Denver a 20-3 lead midway through the third quarter.
From there, it was catch-up time for Brady and the Pats (13-5), and they are not built for that — at least not this season.
"We got in a hole there," Brady said. "It was just too much to dig our way out."
A team that averaged more than 200 yards on the ground the past three games didn't have much quick-strike capability. Brady, who threw for most of his 277 yards in comeback mode, led two fourth-quarter touchdown drives, but both were time-consuming, 80-yard drives. The second cut the deficit to 26-16 with 3:07 left, but the Broncos stopped Shane Vereen on the two-point conversion and the celebration was on in Denver.
"Losing is never easy," defensive lineman Rob Ninkovich said. "But when you have somebody as talented as (Manning), who puts in as much work and effort, and has done it for so long, it's a little bit easier to swallow."
This game started getting out of hand at about the same time Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib went out with a knee injury. Nobody else could cover Thomas, and Manning, who finds mismatches even under the toughest of circumstances, found that one quickly.
"Talib's an excellent player," Manning said, "but Demaryius was going to be a big part of the game plan, either way." Thomas finished with seven catches for 134 yards.