The last time Tom Brady and the New England Patriots came to Denver, Peyton Manning watched the game on television from inside the locker room.
Not next Sunday, though. The Broncos quarterback will take in his customary spot in the huddle.
Manning meets Brady for a 17th time – with a trip to Super Bowl 50 at stake.
Perhaps it’s only fitting these two quarterbacks meet in the AFC title game, since Manning didn’t get to suit up against New England on Nov. 29 because of a foot injury. That game was a thriller, too, with Brock Osweiler leading the Broncos to a 30-24 overtime victory.
Manning’s foot is healed – at least as healed as it’s going to get for now – and he guided the Broncos to a 23-16 win over Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.
Brady is still vintage Brady, passing, bootlegging and QB sneaking the Super Bowl champion Patriots past the Chiefs on Saturday and into the AFC title game for a fifth straight season.
Brady’s Patriots opened as a 3 1/2-point favorite over Manning’s Broncos.
Manning didn’t want to start reflecting on the rivalry with Brady right away. "We’ll deal with that on Wednesday," he said.
Manning is now 12-13 in the playoffs over his career. This one, though, possibly means a little more, given his comeback from a foot ailment that sidelined him for six weeks.
"It’s been a unique season, a lot of new things have happened this season, kind of like tonight," said Manning, who replaced Osweiler in the season finale, leading the Broncos to a win over San Diego to secure the No. 1 seed. "We stayed patient tonight. We never really got frustrated and that served us well tonight and it served me well this season."
Denver surrendered 339 yards passing to Roethlisberger, who entered the game with a sore shoulder. The challenge doesn’t get any easier.
Brady has long gotten the better of Manning, who is 5-11 lifetime against his counterpart, but 2-2 in the playoffs, including a win two years ago in this stadium.
"I’m honored to be a part of it and I’m looking forward to playing next week in the AFC championship," Manning said.
But this is hardly the same Manning anymore. He doesn’t rely on his arm nearly as much as his ability to decipher schemes. He also leans heavily on the running game.
And Denver’s top-ranked defense, too.
"Our defense is guiding us. Let’s make that clear. They played great all season," Manning said. "They were dominant today against a high-powered offense."
Manning and Brady were paired on this stage following the 2013 season, when the Broncos held on for a 26-16 to advance to the Super Bowl.
It was a game that may be best remembered for a hit by Wes Welker on Aqib Talib, which knocked the then-Patriots cornerback out of the game and opened up things for Manning, who threw for 400 yards that afternoon.
Talib is with the Broncos now and a big reason for the success of the defense.
"We’ve had a lot of different players contribute to our success when we’ve been successful," Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said. "I told them it would take them all today. It sure did. It will continue to take all of us as we move forward."
Brady has one of his security blankets back in Julian Edelman, who returned from a broken foot on Saturday to help the Patriots beat Kansas City. Of course, Brady also has tight end Rob Gronkowski.
"They’re one of the best teams in the AFC," Broncos linebacker Von Miller said. "Let’s go out and play and see who wants the Super Bowl."