DENVER -- There were times when Peyton Manning wondered if he'd ever feel this joy again, the feeling that the hours and hours of work, the constant drive to be the best, would pay off with a chance to play on the game's biggest stage.
Heck, 24 months ago Manning wondered if he'd even be able throw again. And now here is he is one victory away from his second Super Bowl ring and maybe finally getting the recognition as one of the all-time greats that he so richly deserves.
Through the baby steps of learning how to throw again after 2011 neck surgery, Manning hoped he'd get another shot to show he was quarterback royalty, even if many doubters still existed -- sometimes even being one of them himself. But as Manning stood on the podium Sunday night, fresh off a 400-yard passing performance to lead the Denver Broncos past the New England Patriots 26-16 in the AFC Championship Game, there was no denying it anymore: Peyton Manning is special.
As he basked in the adulation coming his way from the crowd at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, you could tell this one was even more special than his first two trips to the Super Bowl.
"Playing quarterback there are a number of things that come along with it," Manning said of the criticism aimed his way. "You have to try to keep a level head. You have to eventually focus on doing your job. Nothing more than that."
That's his way of saying he doesn't pay attention to the doubters. But he's a piñata for the many legions of critics out there, led by a vocal media that loves to tear him to shreds. How can he avoid it? Publicly he might say that he doesn't care, but privately it bothers him to the core. He's too much of a competitor for it not to, and over the years we've had many a conversation about just that.
Why is he not appreciated like some others?
Coming back from neck surgery that could easily have ended his career to get to his third Super Bowl should silence some for a few weeks. Manning took everything Bill Belichick and the Patriots threw at him and made it look like a 7-on-7 drill broke out. New England may as well have set the cutlery out for the carving up that Manning did.
He hit eight different receivers in completing 32 of 43 passes for 400 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. The turnover the critics expected never came. Instead they saw Manning dominate the Patriots and rival Tom Brady.
So who's the big-game loser now?
Since Brady last won a Super Bowl in 2004, Manning will now play in more Super Bowls (3-2), won at least one more (1-0) and right now he's even lost one fewer since then, with Brady losing two. Yes, Brady has the edge in rings, but Manning has now beaten him the last two times they have played in an AFC title game.
"This should shut up some people about that," one Broncos player said.
Talk about a player's legs or his arm or pass-rush ability or deep speed all you want. But the most valuable weapon in all of football is Manning's mind. He made Belichick and his coaching staff look silly. He was two steps ahead of them all day.
"As always, he did an excellent job of reading the defense and he got us into some situations that were less than ideal with his astute play calling and recognition," Belichick said.
It took Manning and the offense two series to get a feel for the Patriots. It didn't help New England that corner Aqib Talib went down with a knee injury in the first quarter. He was going to play Demaryius Thomas man-up the entire game.
But I've got news for you: It wouldn't have mattered.
Manning was in one of those zones where he knew what the Patriots were doing before they did. A couple of plays summed up Manning best.
The first came early in the game when he mishandled a snap, regained control of it and fired a pass to Eric Decker for 7 yards and a first down. The significance of that is how Manning described it.
"It was a good snap," Manning said. "New England does a great job of disguising coverages. You do want to get a post-snap read on the coverage. I am not sure I looked it in all the way. I was trying to get a read on (Devin) McCourty and (Steve) Gregory. I didn't look it all the way in. I was able to still go through my progressions on the play."
So turning a positive on that play showed him he was in for a big day?
"It didn't guarantee anything," Manning said. "I was smiling, laughing."
Two other plays stand out. One came on a second-and-20 play from his 10 at the two-minute warning. Most passers would throw a screen or a short play to get to a manageable number for third down. Manning threw a rope to Demaryius Thomas for 27 yards that led to a field goal before the half to make it 13-3 Broncos.
The other throw that stood out came midway through the fourth quarter when New England cut the Denver lead to 23-10. On a second-and-10 play, Manning hit Julius Thomas for 37 yards down the right sideline.
This wasn't a quarterback playing scared.
In fact, his teammates said he was anything but tight this week. Tight end Jacob Tamme and Decker ride to the games with Manning each week. Sunday was no different than any other.
"He had a little bit of a relaxed demeanor about him," Tamme said. "His type of leadership seeps into everybody else. We had great music on the way. Today we had some good stuff going and set the tone nicely."
The only mistake was he had to cut across three lanes of traffic to hit the exit.
I jokingly asked Tamme if Manning directs them all in the car like he does on the field. He laughed. But he didn't say no.
This game was all about Manning and Brady. On this day, one was better. This time, it was Manning. Brady finished 24 of 38 for 277 yards and a touchdown. But he got 135 yards of that in the fourth quarter when Denver had a big lead.
Brady was wild high with several throws and missed some open receivers. Yes, he's playing short-handed on offense, but there were chances.
If it were Manning who had the Brady game, the heat would be on. It would have been his fault. But when Brady loses, it's all about the team.
You can't have it both ways.
Manning was asked about the relief of getting to the Super Bowl again. He brushed it off -- sort of.
"There is still one more game to play," he said. "I think we will enjoy this and you definitely take time to savor the moment. I know I certainly will being in my 16th season going to my third Super Bowl. I know how hard it is to get there. It's extremely difficult."
At the age of 37, after his career looked to be over two years ago and he couldn't throw a football 10 yards after his neck surgery, somehow you get the idea he will savor this one a little more.
Then he will get back to doing what makes him great: Working.
The man's football brain never stops. It's too bad not enough people appreciate him for it.
So I ask you doubters out there to appreciate all he's done to get here. How can you not?