DENVER - The last time they met in the playoffs, 7 years ago, Peyton Manning resorted to prayer to beat Tom Brady.
There was just a minute left in the 2006 AFC Championship Game between Manning's Colts and Brady's Patriots. The Colts had just taken a four-point lead on a 3-yard touchdown run by Joseph Addai.
But Brady still had a minute to work his fourth-quarter magic and spoil Manning's quest for his elusive first Super Bowl title. So Peyton bowed his head, locked his hands together and asked for a little help from The Guy Upstairs.
"I said, 'Dear Lord, just this one time, could you not let Tom Brady make this comeback?' " Manning said in an NFL Films documentary. "I said, 'He's already got three [Super Bowl] rings. He doesn't need another one.' "
Manning's prayer was answered that day. Instead of engineering a comeback, Tom Terrific threw an interception that iced the game for the Colts, who went on to beat the Bears 2 weeks later in the Super Bowl.
Manning and Brady met again yesterday in the AFC Championship Game. This time, heavenly help wasn't necessary. Manning put together one of the best postseason performances of his career as he outdueled Brady in a 26-16 Broncos win.
Manning completed 32 of 43 passes against the Patriots for 400 yards and two touchdowns. It evened his career postseason record at 11-11 and puts him one win away from his second Super Bowl title.
"It's an exciting feeling," Manning said after the game. "You could rename the AFC Championship Game after the Patriots, they've been here so many times. They know how to win big games. To beat them is a significant win."
This was the 15th meeting between Manning and Brady. Brady had won 10 of the previous 14, including two of three in the playoffs.
They're both headed for Canton. But Brady has those three rings and Manning only has the one. A Broncos loss yesterday would have had his critics cranking up the "Peyton can't win the big one" chant again.
It doesn't seem to matter that Manning has a better career postseason passer rating than Brady (90.1 to 87.3). Doesn't matter that he has a better career postseason completion percentage (.641 to .620) and yards-per-attempt average (7.5 to 6.8) than Brady.
"I've been around a while," Peyton's father, Archie, said in the locker room after the game. "Things happen in football. I got a little tired . . . I never really bought into the Tom vs. Peyton thing. I'm an old quarterback. It's [about] teams [not quarterbacks].
"I love Tom. His daddy and I communicate. He's a great player and a great guy. But it never has been Tom vs. Peyton."
Manning was outstanding against the Patriots. Dissected Bill Belichick's defense like a surgeon, throwing just seven incompletions in the first half and just four in the second half.
Not counting their last possession, when they ran the final 3-plus minutes off the clock, the Broncos scored on six of seven possessions. They converted seven of 13 third-down opportunities, including two third-and-10s and a third-and-9.
Eight receivers caught passes from Manning. Wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker and tight end Julius Thomas combined for 20 receptions for 292 yards and a touchdown.
"Adam [Gase, the Broncos' offensive coordinator] had a great game plan," Manning said. "We felt we were going to have to run some crossing patterns. New England has a physical secondary. If you're running all straight down-the-field vertical and intermediate routes, that's tough. You have to have some of that, but you also have to hit them with some crossing routes. That's what we learned coming out of the first time we played them [a 34-31 Patriots win in Week 12].
"They do a great job of taking away your key receiver. With us, we've spread the ball around so well all season, it's hard to know who to key on. Because on any given play, one of five guys could get the ball. And that puts pressure on a defense."
The Broncos, who have managed to overcome a ton of injuries this season, including the loss of their best cornerback, Chris Harris Jr., in last week's divisional-round win over the Chargers, got a big break early in the second quarter when the Patriots' top corner, Aquib Talib, went out with a knee injury.
With Talib out, Manning targeted his top wideout, Demaryius Thomas, 10 times. Thomas finished with seven catches for 134 yards and a 3-yard touchdown in the third quarter that gave the Broncos a 20-3 lead.
"Talib's a great player," Manning said. "But Demaryius was going to be a big part of the game plan no matter who was guarding him. But once Talib went down, we thought we definitely had to get the ball to Demaryius again."
Said Belichick on the hit Talib took from slot receiver Wes Welker on the play he was injured: "It was a key play in the game. I'll say he's a key player for us."
Manning's touchdown throw to Thomas capped a 13-play, 80-yard drive to start the third quarter, which was followed by a nine-play, 60-yard drive that ended with one of Matt Prater's four field goals.
"It was great what the offense did," Thomas said. "We were capable of converting first, second, third downs and putting points on the board almost every time we got the ball.
"Peyton was amazing. He threw for 400. In the AFC Championship Game. Amazing."
One of the most impressive things Manning might have done yesterday wasn't a pass, but a pass-to-run audible he made in the second quarter.
Up 3-0, the Broncos had driven from their 7 to the New England 39. But two incompletions left them with a third-and-10.
"Adam and I always talk situations. We were on the 40. We needed 5 yards to ensure a field goal, to ensure points," Manning said.
"We called a [pass] play looking for the first down. I just wasn't 100 percent sure that the play we had was going to get us the first down. It had a chance to possibly be an incompletion. I hated to have to punt from the 40 when we had had a pretty good drive just to get to that point.
"New England was playing pass coverage. So we audibled to a run play to Knowshon [Moreno] We got it against the right look. We should have gotten at least 10 yards. I thought that's what should have occurred once I made that check. But I felt at the very least, we would get into Prater's range."
Moreno got a lot more than 10 yards. He got 28. Rookie Montee Ball added 9 more on the next play. Three plays later, Manning found a wide-open Jacob Tamme for a 1-yard touchdown.
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