No, you're not seeing things.
That really was Peyton Manning lumbering his way down the field for a 12-yard gain and a first down Sunday. And thanks to his defense, that will be Manning — the 39-year-old quarterback who was supposed to be on his way to a retirement party — and not Tom Brady playing in the Super Bowl two weeks from now.
Weird stat of the AFC title game: Peyton Manning (12 yards) & Tom Brady (11) have the two longest runs of the game. pic.twitter.com/i5F6EXHAoX
— ESPN (@espn) January 24, 2016
Ol' No. 18 engineered a 20-18 victory over the Patriots — not settled until Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby picked off Brady's pass on a 2-point attempt that would have tied it with 12 seconds left.
The Patriots had to go for 2 after Brady hit Rob Gronkowski in the back of the end zone because Stephen Gostkowski missed his first extra point in 524 tries in the first quarter.
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 (14-4) recovered the onside kick and the celebration began. Manning is now 6-11 in his vaunted series against Brady, but 3-1 when it has counted the most — with the AFC title on the line.
"Well, it's been a special rivalry over the course of my career against the Patriots, the entire organization," Manning said. "To play four times in the AFC championship with so much on the line, those games have been very special."
Manning surpassed his boss, John Elway, as the oldest quarterback to take his team to the Super Bowl. The Broncos will play Arizona or Carolina, who met later in the NFC title game.
Whether it's been Manning lining up under center, or Brock Osweiler, who took snaps while Manning was injured for six weeks toward the end of the season, the Broncos have depended on a defense that gave up the fewest yards this season and came up with game-saving plays time and again.
Von Miller finished with 2½ sacks and an interception. The Broncos harassed Brady all day. He finished 27 for 56 for 310 yards. After being shut out twice inside the Denver 20 late in the fourth quarter, Brady lobbed a 40-yard pass to a double-covered Gronkowski to keep a desperation drive going on fourth-and-10.
Then, on fourth-and-goal from the 4 with 12 seconds left, Brady found Gronkowski — again double-covered — in the back corner of the end zone. The tight end stepped in front of Chris Harris Jr. for the catch, and the game came down to one play.
The Broncos defense made it once again, and the franchise is now headed to its eighth Super Bowl. This marks No. 4 for Manning, who could become the first quarterback to lead two different franchises to titles.
"The one thing we've done all year long is we just grind as a football team," coach Gary Kubiak said. "Our fans are great to play for. Defensively, we played our tails off all year long and we found a way to win another tough one."
Was it vintage Manning? Not quite.
Vintage Manning has never been known for taking off when the field is clear, the way he did with 9:49 left in the third quarter and nothing but air between him and the first-down marker on the Patriots sideline.
The 17-for-32 performance certainly won't go in his top half, nor will Owen Daniels go down as one of his top 50 all-time favorite receivers. But 17 completions was enough, and it was Daniels, the tight end who has played his whole career somewhere with Kubiak, who caught both of Manning's touchdown passes.
Faced with the new title of "Game Manager," Manning made the best playoff scramble by a Broncos quarterback since Elway helicoptered his way to a first down in the Super Bowl 18 years back to help the Broncos finally break through.
— NFL (@NFL) January 24, 2016
More fresh in the minds of Broncos fans was Manning's decision to pull up and throw in the playoff game against the Colts last season when he had as much or more open space in front of him as he did Sunday.
Some thought his career might be over after that one.
Nope. Not after this one, either. There's at least one more game in his future — Feb. 7 in Santa Clara, California.