DENVER -- The AFC Championship Game might not have been the down-to-the-wire nail-biter the national television audience wanted, but the Denver Broncos never felt they could relax.
They dominated the statistics. They led wire-to-wire and by as much as 16 points. But they had already seen what kind of comebacks the New England Patriots can unleash, so they kept striving until their 26-16 win into the books and their place in the Super Bowl was assured.
"It's an exciting feeling," quarterback Payton Manning said." ... "I'm an AFC guy; I'm biased toward this conference. I think it's a hard conference to win. You feel like you've done something to win the championship. You realize you still want to win one more game, and whoever we're playing is going to be a tremendous opponent, whether it's San Francisco or Seattle."
About three hours later, Manning and the Broncos found out: They will face the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII on Feb. 2 in New Jersey.
"I tell you what, it is a great tribute to these players, this staff," Denver coach John Fox said. "I couldn't be more proud of a group of men ever in my life. ... This was a great game, two great organizations. We happened to end up on top."
The Broncos (15-3) did so by compiling 507 yards of offense, while racking up 27 first downs and possessing the ball for 35 minutes and 44 seconds. The Patriots (13-5) managed 320 yards -- 64 on the ground.
Manning also won what had been billed as his duel with New England quarterback Tom Brady. Manning passed for 400 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Brady threw for 277 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions.
Denver had eight possessions and got into New England territory on all of them. The same thing happened in their divisional playoff win last weekend against San Diego, so the Broncos are on a streak of 16 consecutive possessions taken into enemy territory.
On Sunday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, the Broncos punted just once: on their first possession.
Then they started pulling away: a 3-0 lead after one quarter, 13-3 at halftime, 20-3 after three.
However, if there's anything the Broncos know about the Patriots is that they aren't dead until it's done. In their regular season meeting Nov. 24, New England came from 24 points down to beat Denver in overtime. During the regular season, the Patriots went 4-2 in games in which they trailed by double digits.
And for all the Broncos were accomplishing, they knew that four times setting for field goals rather than touchdowns was dangerous.
Then New England opened the fourth quarter with a nine-play, 80-yard drive capped by a 7-yard pass from Brady to wide receiver Julian Edelman. Suddenly, the Patriots were down 23-10 -- a two possession game.
Denver added its fourth field goal to make it 26-10 with seven minutes left. But the Patriots answered again, this time with Brady running in the final 5 yards.
New England went for the two-point conversion that could have cut it to a one-possession game, but Shane Vereen was stopped on a run up the middle.
"That would have changed the game quite a bit," New England coach Bill Belichick said. "We obviously didn't do a good job on that play either. We had some opportunities that we done a little bit better with them we would have put ourselves in a better position."
Denver recovered the onside kick that followed, and maintained possession until the final whistle.
"You can't win when you can't get off the field," New England defensive lineman Rob Ninkovich said. "It's basic fundamental football. You've got to get off the field. They do a good job of keeping the sticks moving."
The result will send the Broncos to their seventh Super Bowl in team history.
Manning becomes the third quarterback to lead two different teams to a Super Bowl (Indianapolis, 2006, '09), and Fox becomes the sixth coach to lead two teams to Super Bowls, after taking Carolina in the 2002 season.
The latter was an especially meaningful accomplishment, as Fox left the team for a month while undergoing aortic heart valve replacement surgery.
"Just standing here feels pretty good, because I almost wasn't," he said during the postgame press conference. "Like I said, it's gratifying whether I had a surgery or injury or anything like that. To be able to come back and be on the sideline, be in those meeting rooms, those late-night meetings with the coaches, players and all the sacrifices that go into these things. It feels outstanding regardless."
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