DENVER — When Peyton Manning was watching games from the locker room a few months ago, none of this seemed possible.
Manning back on the field, playing the role of the most decorated game manager in history.
Manning, 39, churning around right end for a 12-yard run and a first down.
Manning back in the Super Bowl.
The strangest season of No. 18's Hall of Fame-ready career will play itself out all the way to the last game. Manning and the Broncos are heading to the Super Bowl, thanks to his efficient offense and a big-play defense that saved Sunday's 20-18 victory over Tom Brady and the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.
Denver faces NFC champion Carolina on Feb. 7 in Santa Clara, Calif.
"It's been a unique season," Manning said. "And this game today was a unique football game."
Manning's third-quarter scramble for a first down — "The run," he called it, using air quotes — might be the most celebrated scramble by a Broncos quarterback since John Elway helicoptered in the Super Bowl, 18 years ago. It was certainly the most unexpected.
"He's going to do what he has to do to win," coach Gary Kubiak said. "He's one of the greatest competitors ever in this league."
That play helped flip the field early in the second half for the Broncos (14-4). Then, defense saved the day.
Manning's fourth trip to the Super Bowl wasn't wrapped up until cornerback Bradley Roby picked off Brady's pass on a 2-point attempt that would have tied it with 12 seconds left.
Brady hit a double-covered Rob Gronkowski in the back of the end zone on fourth down from the 4 to set up the potential tie. The Patriots had to go for two because Stephen Gostkowski pushed an extra point to the right in the first quarter — his first miss in 524 tries.
"All day, these guys put their bodies and lives on the line, and for me to come out here and miss a kick, it's a nightmare scenario," Gostkowski said.
That left it to one play, and former Bucs cornerback Aqib Talib stepped in front of Brady's pass and deflected it skyward. Roby, who forced the game-changing fumble in last week's victory over Pittsburgh, made the pick. The Broncos recovered the onside kick.
"It's not just one individual's fault," Gronkowski said. "You can't put it on the hands of Steph, there's no way."
Manning improved to 6-11 in his vaunted series against Brady, but 3-1 with the AFC title on the line. Manning surpasses Elway as the oldest quarterback to take his team to the Super Bowl — Elway, now the Broncos' team president, was 38 when Denver won its second Super Bowl in a row in the 1998 season.
New England (13-5) won't get a chance to go back-to-back and win a fifth Lombardi Trophy.
The Patriots lost their last two regular-season games to squander the No. 1 seed and homefield advantage, which Denver grabbed instead. In a game that came down to one play, that might have mattered. Another possible factor: Coach Bill Belichick's decision to pass up short field-goal tries twice in the fourth quarter while trailing by eight.
"Because of the scoring situation in the game," he said when asked about those decisions.
Denver's defense, which gave up the fewest yards in the NFL this season, was responsible for New England's failure, too.
Linebacker Von Miller had 21/2 sacks and an interception as the Broncos harassed Brady all day. He finished 27-for-56 for 310 yards and two picks — for a passer rating of 56.4.
After giving it up twice on downs inside the Denver 20 late in the fourth quarter, Brady hit a double-covered Gronkowski for 40 yards to keep a desperation drive going on fourth and 10.
As for Manning, his 17-for-32 performance was not vintage Manning, but he hit tight end Owen Daniels for both of Denver's touchdowns.
"I've really tried to take it one week at a time all season long, through the injuries and all the things that have gone on," Manning said. "I've stayed in the moment. Stayed patient. That's served me well."