Denver quarterback Peyton Manning smiles in the closing minutes of the… (Mark Reis / MCT )
DENVER — As the clock ticked to zeros amid a roaring sea of rattling orange, Peyton Manning took off his helmet and ran away from the celebration.
Before even shaking his fist into the air, he shook hands with the defeated New England Patriots.
As his Denver Broncos teammates danced into the raucous Sports Authority Field locker room after a dominating 26-16 victory in the AFC championship game, Manning walked quietly through the madhouse with the most unusual of posses.
He was accompanied by his two brothers. They hugged and posed for photos. Peyton would not stand in the middle.
It was long after the quarterback's brilliant 400-yard game Sunday returned him to his third Super Bowl that one could confirm this was really about Peyton Manning. That moment finally occurred when he was sitting alone, facing his locker, shirtless.
Only then could one see the long scar running down the back of his neck.
Manning, 37, is back in the Super Bowl just two years after many thought he would never be back in football. Manning is taking the Broncos to the biggest sporting event in America just two years after being cut by the Indianapolis Colts after missing a year because of neck surgery. Manning is headed for what could be not only his most glorious football moment, but perhaps his last football moment, as he may be forced to retire depending on a postseason neck exam.
It was an unseasonably warm afternoon chilled with such emotion that Manning's close friend and tight end Jacob Tamme wept on the field, his father Archie teared up in the locker room, and his teammates set the record for superlatives.
Said receiver Demaryius Thomas: "To do what he just did in a conference championship game? Now, that's amazing."
Said defensive tackle Terrance Knighton: "All the years going against him, all he's been through, he is just unbelievable."
Start spreading the news. The New York Super Bowl is Manning up.
"You do take a moment to realize that we've done something special," said Manning later.
With the league's narrative dominated by the deeds of flashy young quarterbacks, the NFL needs Manning's kind of special. Amid the coldest of Super Bowl settings, the NFL needs his warmth in this game.
"He's probably not very hip," said Tamme. "But he loves to win."
Manning, in his 16th season, runs in the tiny, halting steps of a chicken. He throws passes that frolic like a butterfly. In an era when quarterbacks kiss their biceps, he doesn't really have any biceps. During a time when quarterbacks pose after touchdowns, you often can't even find him after touchdowns. Manning was physically notable Sunday only in that he wore one black glove on his right throwing hand and was constantly adjusting the pads around his aching knees.
Oh yeah, and during his audible signals, he would shout out not only his trademark "Omaha," but also the name of his son, Marshall.
His appearance was wonderfully old-fashioned, but his record in these types of games was wholly unremarkable. Manning took the field with a 4-10 lifetime record against the seemingly flawless Tom Brady, as well as a 10-11 playoff mark that recently led a Denver newspaper to run his photo with a dark cloud over his head.
"To see what he's gone through, what happened makes me so happy for him," said Tamme. "When it hit me, there were tears in my eyes."
It hit the Patriots early, when Manning bobbled a shotgun snap for three agonizing seconds and still managed to grab the ball and hit Eric Decker for seven yards.
"I'm sure some people will have some fun with me tomorrow when we're watching the game film of that particular play," he said.
It hit the Patriots at the end of the first half, when Manning completed six consecutive passes to five receivers to cover 73 yards and set up a field goal and a 13-3 lead.
It hit the Patriots again immediately at the start of the second half when Manning's needles-around-giant-haystacks passing led the Broncos on an 80-yard drive that evaporated more than seven minutes and ended in a three-yard touchdown pass to Thomas that turned into a 20-3 lead.
By then, Brady and the Patriots were so desperately demoralized, they spurned a 46-yard field-goal attempt to go for a first down on the Broncos 29-yard line late in the quarter. Brady was sacked by Knighton.
In the end, Manning was 32 of 43 for 400 yards and two touchdowns while his precision throws helped the Broncos hold the ball for 11 more minutes than the Patriots did.
"To keep Tom Brady on the sidelines is a good thing," Manning said with a laugh.
Afterward Manning finally allowed himself even a smile, perhaps because he realized he could become the first quarterback in history to lead two different teams to Super Bowl championships.
"We've definitely come a long way in the last two years," he said. "It feels very gratifying."
But he seemed just as gratified that brother Eli, quarterback for the New York Giants, showed up and surprised him just as Peyton surprised Eli at the NFC championship game two years ago. Heck, according to Tamme, the corny old dude was happy from the moment they found some cool love songs on the satellite radio while driving to the stadium for the game.
Said Tamme: "Beautiful stuff."
Said brother Cooper: "Peyton would never say he's having fun, but he looked happy today. I will say this, he looks happy."
With this most modern of Super Bowls now being decorated in sentimental throwback, he's surely not alone in that look.