Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning after the AFC Championship playoff win over the New England Patriots Sunday in Denver.
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning after the AFC Championship playoff win over the New England Patriots Sunday in Denver.
DENVER - The family reunion was at Peyton Manning's corner locker. It might have otherwise looked like an afternoon barbecue with a father, Archie Manning, and his three sons, Cooper, Peyton and Eli, smiling and talking football.

But at this Sunday gathering, the middle son was still in his football uniform and the conversation was about another trip to the Super Bowl. The Mannings have been through this before, but if the grins seemed wider this time, it was because no one in the family had ever been certain that Peyton would make it back to the NFL's promised land again.

And that included Peyton Manning himself.

Peyton Manning is the grandson of the late Amzie Cooper Williams and Frances Thomas Williams of Philadelphia. His mother is the former Olivia Williams who married Archie Manning in 1971.

"No one could give me a timetable for my recovery - the uncertainty was everywhere," he said of his multiple neck operations in 2011. "You just had to hope."

But hope did not get Manning into the Super Bowl for the third time Sunday. In a command, emblematic performance, Manning was as precise, poised and productive as he has ever been in a playoff game, throwing for 400 yards and completing 32 of 43 passes to carry the Broncos to a dominant 26-16 victory over the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game.

Denver, which is going to its first Super Bowl since the 1998 season, never trailed, and Manning rarely faltered, whether it was quick, deft passes, long heaves downfield or finesse touch throws. He excelled in every category of pass, a display that for one day could serve as a time-capsule moment defining all his gifts as a quarterback.

And when it was over, after Peyton vanquished his nemesis Tom Brady and took over a pivotal game in a way that many said he could not, the Manning men rallied around Peyton. Just as they did about two years ago, when his operations robbed him of arm strength and ruined his throwing motion.

"Not much amazes me about Peyton anymore," Eli Manning said. "I had some doubts and worries for him after the surgeries, but he stayed strong. I hope he has one more win coming."

In a twist of fate, Peyton will play a Super Bowl in Eli's home field, MetLife Stadium, on Feb. 2. When Peyton was with the Indianapolis Colts, Eli won a Super Bowl in Peyton's home stadium after the 2011 season.

"We laughed about that," Eli said. "And now I'll do whatever I can to make him feel at home at MetLife."

Archie Manning was just looking forward to his fifth trip watching a son playing in the Super Bowl.

"Especially because of everything Peyton has had to overcome," Archie said.

Older brother Cooper, meanwhile, was convinced that the normally orderly and regimented Peyton was enjoying this year's championship journey more than any of the others.

"When the clock is ticking and you don't know how many more chances you'll get at something, you look around and relish it a little bit," Cooper said. "I saw him doing that today. I think he actually joked out there once or twice."

The 37-year-old Peyton Manning, who won a Super Bowl after the 2006 season and lost one after the 2009 season, was at ease from the beginning of Sunday's game. No play perhaps typified that more than the early first-quarter snap that he bobbled once and then again, the football bouncing around as New England linemen charged at him.

Manning corralled the ball finally, hastily went through his receiver progression and completed a pass.

It was like an omen: Even something potentially disastrous became a positive for the Broncos. Asked if that is how he interpreted the outcome, Manning responded: "It doesn't guarantee anything, but it helps. I was smiling in the huddle, and I think a few other guys were, too."

Though the Broncos led by just 3-0 after the first quarter, they never looked back in a game that was much more of a rout than the score indicated after New England scored two touchdowns in the final minutes.

As Manning was finding his rhythm, Brady never seemed in sync, and while he completed 24 of 38 passes for 277 yards, much of that was in garbage time after the game was settled and the Broncos had a 20-point fourth quarter lead.

Brady's passing was surprisingly uneven as he overthrew open receivers several times. It did not help that the Patriots' running game, so strong during their playoff opener, was stonewalled by the Denver defensive front. By midway through the third quarter, New England, which had just 64 rushing yards, had all but given up trying to advance the ball on the ground.

Manning had the advantage of an effective rushing game and a superior corps of receivers, and he benefited from a first-half injury to Aqib Talib, New England's best cornerback.

"You've got to congratulate Denver because they did just about everything better than we did today," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, whose record in AFC championship games fell to 5-3. "It is always tough to end a season this way, but we did a lot of things that others might have expected of us."

Under sunny skies and with temperatures near 60 degrees, a high-scoring shootout was expected, but a more methodical effort from the Broncos ensued instead.

In the second quarter, Denver's first touchdown was set up by a 28-yard dash by Knowshon Moreno, who burst through a gaping hole in the right side of the line, broke two arm tackles and was brought down at the New England 11-yard line.

That led to a 1-yard touchdown pass to Jacob Tamme and a 10-0 Denver lead midway through the second quarter.

The Denver crowd was roaring and sensing a rout, but the Patriots cut the Broncos lead to 10-3. Still, the most crucial play for New England came later in the quarter, when Talib injured his ribs and left the game. Manning repeatedly picked on Talib's substitutes, throwing to Demaryius Thomas on consecutive plays that picked up 53 yards in the waning seconds of the first half. That led to a 13-3 Denver lead at intermission.

In the third quarter, Manning picked up where he left off, victimizing the Patriots cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard and Talib's replacement, Logan Ryan.

Manning completed six passes, the last of them a 3-yard touchdown pass to Thomas, who beat Dennard at the back of the end zone. The score was the culmination of a 13-play drive that took 7 minutes, 8 seconds.

Soon trailing by 20 points, New England rallied but could not sustain back-to-back drives.

When it was over, Manning celebrated on the field, then retreated to the locker room, where he huddled with his father and brothers.

"I've played 16 years," he said afterward. "It's at times like these that you want to pause and savor the moment. So you won't soon forget it."