DENVER (AP) — Peyton Manning stuffed the football into his helmet and handed it to an equipment man for safekeeping.
The connection: Flawless, as usual.
The keepsake: Certainly one he'll want to hang on to.
The Broncos quarterback had an answer for everyone Sunday — from Tom Brady to the New England defense to anyone who thought he couldn't win the big one.
Manning is taking the Broncos on a trip to New York for the Super Bowl after another of his impeccably crafted victories — this time, a 26-16 win over the Patriots on Sunday in the AFC title game.
"Being in my 16th season, going to my third Super Bowl, I know how hard it is to get there," Manning said.
Especially this time.
Only three years ago, he could barely grip a football as he started the long comeback from surgeries that ravaged his neck and nerve endings. And only 53 weeks ago, he suffered a devastating loss to Baltimore in the divisional playoffs that derailed what looked like a Super Bowl trip in his comeback season.
But Manning will get his chance for a second Super Bowl ring, after all. He'll try to become the first starting quarterback to win one with two different teams, at the Meadowlands on Feb. 2 against Seattle or San Francisco, who played later Sunday for the NFC championship.
"He's been remarkable," said Broncos coach John Fox, off to his second Super Bowl as a head coach. "It's unprecedented what he did."
After packing away his football, Manning ran to the 30-yard line to shake hands with Brady. A bit later in the locker room, he celebrated with his father, Archie, and brothers Cooper and Eli, the Giants quarterback who surprised Peyton much the way Peyton surprised him by showing up at the NFC title game two years ago.