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Manning, Broncos end Patriots season, head to Super Bowl
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) reacts against the Denver Broncos in the second half of the 2013 AFC Championship football game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
Manning finished 32-of-43 and guided the top-seeded Broncos (15-3) to six consecutive scoring drives to send Denver into a Super Bowl matchup against Seattle or San Francisco on Feb. 2. Demaryius Thomas hauled in seven receptions for 134 yards and a touchdown as the Broncos avenged a 34-31 loss at New England on Nov. 24 - a game in which they squandered a 24-point halftime lead.
Manning carved up the Patriots with surgical precision, hitting on 19-of-20 passes in one stretch to beat nemesis Tom Brady for only the fifth time in 15 career matchups and reach his third Super Bowl. Denver, which set a league record with 606 points this season, piled up 507 yards and held the ball for nearly 36 minutes while keeping New England (13-5) out of the end zone until the final 9 1/2 minutes.
Brady was not sharp in falling to 2-2 against Manning in AFC Championship Games, throwing for 277 yards and one TD on 24-of-38 passing, and received no help from a running game that managed 64 yards after averaging 181 yards in its three previous games. The Patriots also couldn't overcome the loss of top cornerback Aqib Talib, who suffered a knee injury early in the second quarter and did not return.
With the Broncos leading 13-3 at halftime, Manning opened the third quarter by moving his team 80 yards in 13 plays, culminating in a 3-yard scoring pass to Thomas for a 20-3 edge. Denver's defense stepped up, denying New England on fourth-and-2 later in the quarter, before Manning got the Broncos in position for Matt Prater's 19-yard field goal and a 23-3 lead with 12:02 to play.
The Patriots finally put together a sustained drive and closed within 23-10 on Brady's 7-yard scoring pass to Julian Edelman with 9:26 remaining, but Manning connected with tight end Julius Thomas for 37 yards to set up Prater's 54-yard boot for a 26-10 edge with seven minutes to play. Brady's 5-yard touchdown run sliced the deficit to 10 points but the Broncos stuffed the two-point conversion with 3:07 left and recovered the ensuing onside kick.
The Broncos controlled the opening half but managed to get in the end zone only once when Manning capped a 15-play, 93-yard march with a 1-yard pass to tight end Jacob Tamme. Talib was injured on that drive and Manning exploited his absence and the lack of a pass rush by throwing for 214 yards and getting Denver in position for field goals of 27 and 35 yards for a 13-3 edge at the half.
GAME NOTEBOOK: Manning became the fourth quarterback in league history to advance to the Super Bowl in the same season in which he led the league in touchdowns and passing yards while Denver's John Fox became the sixth coach in league history to lead two different franchises to the Super Bowl. ... Talib injured his knee early in the second quarter when ex-Patriot WR Wes Welker launched himself into him on a pick play. ... Manning, who joined Brady as the only QBs to throw for more than 6,000 yards in the postseason, improved to 56-1 in his career when leading by at least 10 points - the only loss was the overtime defeat at New England earlier this season.