DENVER -- Peyton Manning was still in uniform by his locker when he spotted his younger brother, Eli, and then his older brother, Cooper. They were aware of the significance of the Denver Broncos' 26-16 win over the New England Patriots in Sunday's AFC championship game. Their father, Archie, held back tears.
Manning is 37. He knows moments like the one he shared with his family on Sunday are rare and fleeting.
The victory clinched Manning's third Super Bowl appearance. Manning said he looked forward to celebrating with his teammates and going to dinner with his family. There will be plenty of time to work before Super Bowl XLVIII against the Seattle Seahawks on Feb. 2. Sunday was about appreciating what had just happened.
"You definitely have to take time to savor the moment," said Manning, who passed for 400 yards and two touchdowns. "I know I certainly will. Being in my 16th season, going to my third Super Bowl, I know how hard it is to get there. It is extremely difficult."
This is the second time that Manning has outdueled Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the conference championship, but it was just his fifth victory over a Brady-quarterbacked team in 15 meetings.
"I got a little tired of -- I never really bought into -- the Tom vs. Peyton thing," Archie Manning said. "I'm an old quarterback. It's teams. ... It never has been Tom vs. Peyton."
It was clear on Sunday that the Broncos had the better team. The Broncos' record-setting offense was helped by a wealth of targets. Demaryius Thomas led the receiving corps with seven catches for 134 yards. Manning was never even brought to the ground by a Patriots pass rusher.
Denver took a 13-3 lead into halftime and opened the third quarter with a touchdown drive to take a commanding lead. The Patriots were not able to cut it to a one-possession game after that.
Brady finished 24 of 38 for 277 yards, but he was under duress most of the day and was occasionally off target with his passes. Former Eagles cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie had an important pass breakup on a third down in the first quarter. Broncos defensive lineman Terrance Knighton sacked Brady on a third-quarter fourth down to stymie a scoring opportunity.
"I was ready for the moment, and every player dreams about that," said Knighton, who finished with two tackles for a loss and a quarterback hit in addition to the sack. "I'm just happy it came true."
Sharing the happiness in the Broncos locker room were cornerback Champ Bailey, whose first Super Bowl is coming in his 15th season, and coach John Fox, who missed four games this season because of a heart procedure. But for Manning, whose career was in doubt after he missed all of 2011 with a neck injury, it was especially sweet.
No one in Manning's family knew how his return would go. Because of his age and the nature of the neck injury, there was reason to doubt. They tried to stay positive.
When Manning signed with Denver after his release by the Indianapolis Colts, he wondered how long it would take to acclimate to a new team. Two years later, Manning finished with the finest passing season in NFL history and is one win away from his second Super Bowl title.
"It all worked out," Archie Manning said.
Peyton Manning knows there's more work to do. He emphasized the importance of the next week of practice. That will start on Monday. Sunday night was about enjoying what just happened: a win over Brady, another AFC crown, and the chance to bolster his already storied legacy.
"When you know you don't have a ton of (opportunities) left," Cooper Manning said, "you can really soak it up and it sinks in."
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