DENVER — Peyton Manning was on the cusp of taking his second team to the Super Bowl on Sunday as he led Denver on two clock-eating drives that gave the Broncos a 23-3 lead over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots early in the fourth quarter of the AFC championship.
Manning threw short touchdown passes to Jacob Tamme and Demaryius Thomas to cap drives that ate more than 7 minutes each, the two longest drives of the season for the quick-strike Denver offense. Matt Prater kicked three short field goals on other drives that stalled deep in New England territory.
The much-anticipated 15th matchup between Brady and Manning took a while to get going as the Patriots went three-and-out on their first two possessions and the Broncos couldn't finish promising drives on their first two possessions.
Finally, Manning drove the Broncos 93 yards in 15 plays, finding his backup tight end — who came over to Indianapolis with him when he traded the blue and white horseshoe on his helmet for the orange mane-mustang — uncovered in the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown toss.
That gave Denver a 10-0 lead midway through the second quarter, which boded well for the Broncos.
Since 2007, Manning is 55-1 in games in which he's had a double-digit lead.
Then again, his only loss in that time was at New England. On Nov. 24, Brady led the Patriots back from a 24-0 halftime deficit for a 34-31 win in overtime at frigid Foxborough.
That game happened to be the only one in which Tamme scored a touchdown this season as he was relegated to backup duty with the emergence of Julius Thomas, the key to Denver's high-octane offense that featured an unprecedented give players with at least 60 receptions and double-digit touchdowns.
Two other drives by Denver stalled deep in New England territory, on at the Patriots 9 and the other and their 17, and Prater split the uprights from 27 and 35 yards.
After punts on their first three possessions, including three-and-outs on their first two, the Patriots finally warmed when Brady hit a wide-open Aaron Dobson with a 27-yard pass, but that drive also stalled, this time when Brady was sacked by Robert Ayers for an 11-yard loss on third-and-8 from the Broncos 18 following a timeout.
Stephen Gostkowski's 47-yard field goal made it 10-3.
Manning was 18 for 25 for 214 yards in the first half, exactly 100 yards more than Brady, who completed 9 of 15 passes.
Demaryius Thomas had three catches for 82 yards, including back-to-back grabs of 26 and 27 yards after Patriots shutdown cornerback Aqib Talib, who held him to a season-low 41 yards in their matchup in November, left the game with a knee injury in the second quarter.
The Patriots said his return was questionable. Talib was banged up after he ran into Broncos receiver Wes Welker on a pass play over the middle.
It was an unseasonably warm 63 degrees at kickoff, a far cry from the 22-degree night with 22 mph winds the last time these teams played and Brady came out of it with his 10th win in 14 career matchups with Manning.
This is New England's third straight trip to the AFC title game, but Denver's first in 2,919 days, since the Broncos lost at home to Pittsburgh on Jan. 22, 2006.
The Patriots are in unfamiliar territory as both underdogs and visitors in this conference championship.
They've played their last nine AFC playoff games at home. Their last trip before this weekend came way back in the title game following the 2006 season — when Manning led the Indianapolis Colts to a 38-34 win over Brady's Patriots.