Manning, Broncos scramble to Super Bowl in 20-18 win over NE

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is chased out of the pocket by New England Patriots defenders during the first half the NFL football AFC Championship game between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016, in Denver. (AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)

DENVER (AP) — If this 17th matchup with Tom Brady was indeed the final one, Peyton Manning got the last laugh — thanks to Von Miller.

The star of Denver’s dizzying defense had 2½ sacks, an interception that set up a touchdown and a pass breakup in the Broncos’ 20-18 win over the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game Sunday.

“Hey, I tell you. I can do it all, baby,” Miller cracked.

No joke.

The Broncos (14-4) beat the Patriots (13-5) for the second time this season, and they dethroned the defending champs by hitting Brady an incredible 23 times.

“He was rattled,” Aqib Talib said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody put that much pressure on Tom — ever. So, I think we did a hell of a job getting that pressure on him. That’s why we’re going to the ‘ship.”

Along with Manning, who was hit just four times.

“I’ve enjoyed playing on the same team as that defense,” Manning said.

“I’m glad I haven’t had to face them this season, I’ll say that. They’ve been challenging to go against in practice, going back to training camp, but it is special to watch them work and watch them perform on Sunday.”

Brady praised not only Denver’s front seven, but its star-studded secondary.

“It was just tough for us to ever get in a rhythm,” Brady said.

DeMarcus Ware and Derek Wolfe applied plenty of pressure, complementing a “No Fly Zone” secondary that was missing safeties T.J. Ward (ankle) and Darian Stewart (knee) by the end of the game.

Denver, which led the league in defense for the first time in franchise history, held on fourth down inside the 20 on consecutive drives before allowing Rob Gronkowski to haul in a 4-yard TD pass with 12 seconds left.

A bruised and battered Brady tried to hit Julian Edelman over the middle for the tying 2-point conversion. Talib batted the pass into the air and Bradley Roby intercepted it.

The Broncos needed one last big play to secure their spot in the Super Bowl and they got it from the unlikeliest of places — safety Shiloh Keo, a free agent who joined the team last month, smothered the onside kick.

“That was intense,” Wolfe said. “But I didn’t have any doubt in my heart. I knew we were going to win the game.”

Talib said Denver’s defense was fired up over being a 3-point underdog at home to a team they’d already beaten, 30-24 in overtime back in November.

“We’re the No. 1 seed, got the No. 1 defense,” Talib said.

Manning, who suffered through the worst season of his career and dealt with a tear in the plantar fascia near the heel of his left foot that cost him seven starts, improved to 6-11 against his rival with half of those wins coming in AFC championship games.

One was in Indianapolis the year he won his only Super Bowl ring and now he’s beaten Brady twice in Denver for the Lamar Hunt Trophy.

So, two months shy of 40, Manning is going to Super Bowl 50 with the chance to become the first starting QB to win Lombardi Trophies for two different franchises.

“The big thing is we’ve got to win,” Broncos boss John Elway said. “It’s going to be a tremendous add to Peyton’s legacy, but also the Broncos legacy, too. We’ve given ourselves and opportunity and hopefully saved our best for last and in two weeks go out beat a good football team.”

The Broncos just don’t get tight when the games get that way — Sunday’s win was their NFL record 11th by seven points or fewer.

“We won a lot of games this year just grinding as a football team, playing great defense,” coach Gary Kubiak said. “We played tremendous today in making the play at the right time.”

Ware, an 11th-year veteran heading to his first Super Bowl, gave a speech to his teammates Saturday night. Tired, he tried to come off the field after Gronkowski’s TD. Kubiak burned his final timeout instead.

“We weren’t going to play another play without him out there, not if I could help it,” Kubiak said.

Kubiak also had high praise for Miller, his fellow Texas A&M alum.

“Today,” Kubiak said, “along with the defense, he was big time.”

The pass rushers praised Denver’s secondary for giving them the time to knock Brady around.

Brady misfired 29 times to go with his 27 completions and finished with a paltry passer rating of 56.4.

“They said we couldn’t cover their receivers and their tight ends — and we shut them down,” cornerback Chris Harris Jr said.

Wolfe said he could tell Brady was bothered after he clobbered him on the game’s first series.

“That kind of got in his head: ‘Oh, the D-line’s here, they’re ready to play,'” Wolfe said. “It sticks in anybody’s head when you’ve got four or five guys that are coming to take your head off.”

Wolfe, Miller and Harris were sideline spectators in the Super Bowl against Seattle two years ago, and now they’re leading Manning back with a chance to go out on top during a season when his skills and character were both questioned in media reports.

“God couldn’t have written the story any better for Peyton,” Harris said. “He gets hurt. Then they said he got HGH. And he loses his spot. He comes back. We’re on our way to the Super Bowl. I can see a beautiful ending for Peyton.”

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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