DENVER (AP) — Only three years ago, Peyton Manning could barely grip a football, let alone throw one.
A Super Bowl quarterback? Nobody had ever overcome those kind of odds.
On Sunday, he wrote the next chapter in one of football's most remarkable comeback stories, outplaying Tom Brady to lead the Broncos to the Super Bowl for the first time since John Elway took the snaps in Denver some 15 years ago.
Manning crafted yet another impeccable masterpiece, throwing for 400 yards in a 26-16 victory over Brady and the New England Patriots.
"Being in my 16th season, going to my third Super Bowl, I know how hard it is to get there," Manning said.
He'll try to become the first starting quarterback to lead two different teams to titles.
On his way out of Indy, Manning's comeback attempt began a while after his fourth neck surgery, when he tried to play catch with an old college buddy, Todd Helton, who then played for the Colorado Rockies.
The first pass left Manning's hand and fluttered to the ground. Helton thought Manning was joking.
Fast forward three years and there he was, on a splendid, 63-degree day in Denver, winging it to the receiving corps Elway put together when he returned to the Broncos as a front-office executive.
One of those receivers, Demaryius Thomas, caught seven passes for 134 yards and a touchdown to cap off one of Manning's two 7-minute-plus touchdown drives.
"To keep Tom Brady on the sideline is a good thing," Manning said. "That's something you try to do when you're playing the Patriots."
After kneeling down to seal the victory, Manning stuffed the ball into his helmet, then 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.
Asked what pregame advice he gave his younger brother, Cooper said: "Go ahead and pretend you're a 10-year-old playing in the front yard. That's what it looked like" today.
Indeed, Manning did whatever he wanted. And though he threw for 400 yards, it was more dink-and-dunk than a fireworks show in this, the 15th installment between the NFL's two best quarterbacks of a generation. (Manning is 5-10, but now 2-1 in AFC title games).
Manning set up four field goals by Matt Prater and put his stamp on this one with the long, meticulous touchdown drives.
He geared down the no-huddle, hurry-up offense that helped him set records for touchdown passes and yardage this season and made the Broncos the highest-scoring team in history. The result: 93- and 80-yard touchdown drives that were the two longest, time-wise, of the season for the Broncos (15-3).
The Broncos held the ball for 35:44. They were 7 for 13 on third-down conversions.
Manning capped the second long drive with a 3-yard pass to Thomas, who got inside the overmatched Alfonzo Dennard and left his feet to make the catch. It gave Denver a 20-3 lead midway through the third quarter.
From there, it was catch-up time for Brady and the Pats (13-5), and they were not built for that — at least not this year.
"We got in a hole there," Brady said. "It was just too much to dig our way out."
A team that averaged more than 200 yards on the ground the last three games didn't have much quick-strike capability. Brady, who threw for most of his 277 yards in comeback mode, actually led the Patriots to a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns. But they were a pair of time-consuming, 80-yard drives. The second cut the deficit to 26-16 with 3:07 left, but the Broncos stopped Shane Vereen on the 2-point conversion and the celebration was on in Denver.
"Losing is never easy," Patriots defensive lineman Rob Ninkovich said. "But when you have somebody as talented as (Manning), who puts in as much work and effort, and has done it for so long, it's a little bit easier to swallow."
The trip to New York will come 15 years after Elway rode off into the sunset with his second straight Super Bowl victory.
It's been tough since then in Denver. Coaching changes. Bad defenses. A quarterback carousel.
Finally, Elway came back and, upon his return, slammed the door on the Tim Tebow experiment and signed Manning to a contract, knowing there were risks involved in bringing to town a 30-something quarterback coming off multiple operations to resurrect his career.
Even without Von Miller on the field, Elway put enough pieces in place around Manning to move within a game of the championship.
Thomas. Wes Welker (four catches, 38 yards). Eric Decker (5-73). Tight end Julius Thomas (8-85).
"It's been a terrific group," Elway said as he hoisted the AFC championship trophy. "They worked their tail off all year."
Now, Manning gets two weeks to prepare for the Seahawks — an old AFC West rival, who will now be faced with slowing down a quarterback who led his team to a record 606 points in the regular season, then another 50 in the playoffs.
"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."