The shotgun snap from center on the third play of Sunday’s AFC championship game seemed to catch Denver quarterback Peyton Manning flat-footed.
He bobbled the ball once, grabbed it, fumbled it again and caught it off his face mask.
Then, he coolly found wide receiver Eric Decker for 21 yards.
It would be that kind of day for Manning, who turned the showdown against New England’s Tom Brady into a beatdown.
Manning took the suspense out of the 15th meeting between the two quarterback legends early and pierced the New England defense for 400 yards passing in leading the Broncos to a 26-16 victory at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
The victory sends Denver to Super Bowl XLVIII in New York — the Broncos’ first Super Bowl since John Elway led them to a second straight title following the 1998 season.
And it re-established Manning as the preeminent quarterback in the NFL.
Brady had won 10 of the first 14 meetings between the two rivals — including a 34-31 overtime victory during the regular season when the Patriots came back from a 24-0 halftime deficit.
But there would be no comeback in this one.
Manning, expected to win an unprecedented fifth NFL MVP award this season, took a 2-1 lead over Brady in AFC championship games as he advances to the third Super Bowl of his career. The first two came with Indianapolis, where he beat Chicago in Super Bowl XLI and lost to New Orleans in Super Bowl XLIV.
Just a year ago, in Manning’s first season in Denver after spending 14 seasons in Indianapolis, the Broncos were stunned in their first playoff game in double overtime after Manning threw a crucial interception.
So here he is, three years after undergoing career-threatening neck surgery, returning to the Super Bowl.
“It’s exciting feeling,” said Manning, who joined Craig Morton (Dallas and Denver) and Kurt Warner (St. Louis and Arizona) as the only quarterbacks to lead two franchises to the Super Bowl. “I can remember times we won the AFC championship I’m an AFC guy. I’m biased to this conference. I think it’s a hard conference to win. You feel like you’ve done something to win the championship. You still have to win one more game, but we have done something special here.”
“I know how hard it is to get there.”
Manning completed 32 of 43 passes for 400 yards and two touchdowns, while kicker Matt Prater made four field goals for the Broncos. Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas caught seven passes for 134 yards and a touchdown; tight end Julius Thomas caught eight passes for 85 yards.
Oh, and about that nearly botched snap?
“It was a good snap,” Manning said. “New England does a great job disguising coverages. You want to get a post-snap read. Your job is to look the ball in. I’m not sure I looked the ball in all the way. I was trying to get a read on (cornerbacks Devin) McCourty and (Steve) Gregory. I was glad to get a hold of the grip and the laces and still go through my progression on that play and find an open receiver.
“I was smiling and laughing (afterward) I’m sure some people will have some fun with me when we’re watching film.”
As it turned out, that drive turned out to be the only time the Broncos would punt all day. Manning led the Broncos to points on six straight possessions — two touchdowns and four field goals.
Manning’s 400 yards were the third-most in his 22 career postseason games. While with Indianapolis, he threw for 458 yards in a win over Denver in a 2004 first-round game; and he threw for 402 yards in a loss to San Diego in a 2007 second-round game.
“That guy, he won the game through the week in his preparation really, the whole year,” said Denver wide receiver Wes Welker, in his first season with the Broncos after spending six seasons in New England. “He put a lot in to this year. The guy is our leader, and he showed it out there.”
Manning and the league’s top-ranked offense was actually the Broncos’ best defense against Brady and the Patriots. In the second quarter, Manning marched the Broncos 93 yards in 15 plays, capped by a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jacob Tamme.
That drive that took 7 minutes, 1 second, for the Broncos’ longest of the season time-wise — until the third quarter when they went 80 yards in 13 plays and took 7:08 before his 3-yard touchdown flip to Demaryius Thomas.
“To keep Tom Brady on the sidelines is a good thing,” Manning said. “We did a good job of converting third downs. Our field position was never very good, but we did a good job of maintaining possession of the football.”
Brady threw a mild scare into the Broncos and into the second-largest crowd (77,160) in franchise history.
Brady tossed a 7-yard touchdown pass and ran for a 5-yard touchdown in the fourth-quarter, drawing the Patriots to within 26-16 with 3:07 to play, but when they failed on a two-point conversion run that could have made it a one-score game, it was over.