AP National Writer
DENVER ? Two years ago, the NFL world was wondering if Peyton Manning might ever throw another pass. Even he wasn't sure.
Yet there were a gaggle of Mannings in a jubilant Denver Broncos locker room on Sunday, celebrating the Broncos' 26-16 win in the AFC Championship Game and Manning's third trip to the Super Bowl. Manning has a chance to win a second Super Bowl ring ? his first with the Broncos and his first since having four surgeries on his neck.
"One of my favorite things to tell him is, 'Enjoy the journey.' I tell him that all the time. And it's been a good journey," Manning's father and former NFL quarterback Archie Manning said.
Archie was joined by his other two sons, New York Giants quarterback Eli, who made the trip to Denver to surprise his brother, and Cooper, whose two sons scampered around the locker room in their orange No.18 jerseys, taking pictures of the AFC championship memorabilia and posing in their uncle's locker.
"Oh, we're proud. Obviously we're proud of Peyton, but we're just like all the other parents of Broncos that are going to the Super Bowl," Archie said.
Peyton Manning was brilliant in leading the Broncos to their first Super Bowl since his boss, John Elway, retired after the 1998 season. Manning threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns, both at the end of drives lasting more than seven minutes. He was clearly the best player on the field in his 15th meeting with longtime nemesis Tom Brady.
Manning will be joined in East Rutherford, N.J., at MetLife Stadium on Feb. 2 by a suddenly stout defense that held the New England Patriots to 320 yards. The Broncos shut down the Patriots running game (64 yards) and held Brady to 277 passing yards. Brady was sacked twice, including a 10-yard loss on fourth-and-3 from the Broncos 29-yard line in the third quarter with Denver leading 20-3. That sack, by defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, killed the Patriots' 13-play drive and drew some of the loudest cheers of the day from a sold-out crowd at Sports Authority Field.
"We knew it would take a dominant performance on defense. We knew our offense was going to go out there with a rhythm. I knew Peyton would throw for all that, and we just wanted to do our part," Knighton said. "We didn't want to be the missing link."
Fans relished the Broncos' first AFC title game since the 2005 season (when they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers), and the resurgence of a team that was 4-12 three years ago. But the brief and disastrous tenure of coach Josh McDaniels, now New England's offensive coordinator, led to the hiring of Elway as executive vice president of football operations. Elway has rebuilt the team and was a key element to the signing of Manning in March 2012.
Denver has gone 13-3 in the two seasons since, while Manning and the offense shattered records this season with 55 passing touchdowns and 606 points scored. But none of that would have really mattered without a trip to the Super Bowl.
The Broncos, the preseason favorites to win the AFC, did not get here easily. They played the first six games of the season without their star pass rusher as Von Miller served a suspension, lost all-pro left tackle Ryan Clady in Week 2, lost defensive starters Miller, defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, defensive end Derek Wolfe, safety Rahim Moore and cornerback Chris Harris to season-ending injuries and played four weeks without coach John Fox, who had heart surgery in early November.
"Every Super Bowl team that has held up that trophy has been through some type of adversity," Knighton said. "We just wanted to respond."