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DENVER (AP) -- Peyton Manning stuffed the football into his helmet and handed it to an equipment man for safekeeping.
The connection: Flawless, as usual.
The keepsake: Certainly one he'll want to hang on to.
The Broncos quarterback had an answer for everyone Sunday - from Tom Brady to the New England defense to anyone who thought he couldn't win the big one.
Manning is taking the Broncos on a trip to New York for the Super Bowl after another of his impeccably crafted victories - this time, a 26-16 win over the Patriots on Sunday in the AFC title game.
"Being in my 16th season, going to my third Super Bowl, I know how hard it is to get there," Manning said.
Especially this time.
Only three years ago, he could barely grip a football as he started the long comeback from surgeries that ravaged his neck and nerve endings. And only 53 weeks ago, he suffered a devastating loss to Baltimore in the divisional playoffs that derailed what looked like a Super Bowl trip in his comeback season.
But Manning will get his chance for a second Super Bowl ring, after all. He'll try to become the first starting quarterback to win one with two different teams, at the Meadowlands on Feb. 2 against the Seattle Seahawks, who beat San Francisco 23-17 in the NFC title game.
"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."
After packing away his football, Manning 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, the Giants quarterback who surprised Peyton much the way Peyton surprised him by showing up at the NFC title game two years ago.
The Indy-turned-Denver quarterback improved to 5-10 lifetime against Brady, but is now 2-1 in AFC title games.
"I have a lot of respect for him," Brady said. "Certainly, he's a great player and he played great today."
Though Manning 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 set up four field goals by Matt Prater and put his stamp on this one with a pair of long, meticulous and mistake-free touchdown drives in which nothing came cheap.
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 each lasted more than seven minutes; they 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.
"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."
Manning capped the second long drive with a 3-yard pass to Demaryius 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 are 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, where it figures to be at least a tad cooler than Sunday's 63-degree reading at kickoff, will come 15 years after John Elway rode off into the sunset with his second straight Super Bowl victory.
The Broncos have had one close call since - when they lost at home to Pittsburgh in the 2005 season's AFC title game - but what it really took was Elway's return to the franchise in 2011. He slammed the door on the Tim Tebow experiment and signed Manning to a contract, knowing there were risks involved in bringing to town a thirty-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."
Manning knows how to make the most of all the options he's been given.
This game started getting out of hand at about the same time Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib went out with a knee injury. Nobody else could cover Thomas, and Manning, who finds mismatches even under the toughest of circumstances, found this one quickly.
"Talib's an excellent player," Manning said, "but Demaryius was going to be a big part of the game plan, either way."
Thomas finished with seven catches for 134 yards, including receptions of 26 and 27 yards that set up a field goal for a 13-3 lead before the half.
Denver got the ball to start the third quarter and Manning hit Thomas for 15 and 4 yards as part of the 80-yard, 7:08 touchdown drive that gave Denver the 17-point lead.
It was 23-3 before Brady began the comeback that came up short.
"Peyton Manning is Peyton Manning," Patriots defensive end Andre Carter said. "He's a smart player and able to make adjustments when he needs to."
New England came up a win short of the Super Bowl for the second straight year.
The thought this week was that Bill Belichick's team was playing with house money, having well exceeded expectations for a team that lost a number of stars - Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski - and has been plagued by injuries all year.
But a loss is a loss and facts are facts. Belichick is stuck on three titles and hasn't won one since the NFL busted him for the Spygate videotaping scandal.
"There were a lot of opportunities in the game that, if we were able to coach better, play better, execute better in any of those areas, it would have given us a chance," Belichick said.
Manning said Belichick is the best coach he's ever had to go against. The quarterback insisted this week's showdown against Brady was more Broncos vs. Patriots than Manning vs. Brady. He lets others decide who's the greatest at this or that.
But he earned a chance to improve on his already-sterling legacy - one that figures to leave him holding his fifth MVP trophy come Super Bowl week.
A win at MetLife Stadium in two weeks would put him in the same company brother Eli, along with Elway, Roger Staubach and a few others as a two-time Super Bowl winner.
Two weeks for Manning to prepare might feel like a lifetime.
At times, his long, difficult comeback has felt like a lifetime, too.
"We've definitely come a long way in two years," Manning said. "And bouncing back from last year's playoff loss to put ourselves in this position, it definitely feels very gratifying."
Golden Tate grabbed a 12th Man flag and circled the field with it.
Even team owner Paul Allen made an appearance and gave a victory speech.
The Seattle Seahawks are headed to the Big Apple for the Super Bowl.
"To see all our work that we put in - the mornings, the nights, the weights, all your life, as a young player and in the NFL," Malcolm Smith said after his end zone interception with 22 seconds remaining clinched the 23-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. "It's amazing."
Seattle's top-ranked defense forced three fourth-quarter turnovers, and Russell Wilson threw a 35-yard touchdown pass on fourth down for the winning points. Seattle will meet Denver (15-3) for the NFL title in two weeks in the New Jersey Meadowlands. It's the first trip to the big game for the Seahawks (15-3) since they lost to Pittsburgh after the 2005 season.
The conference champs had the best records in the league this year, the second time the top seeds have gotten to the Super Bowl in 20 seasons. It also is a classic confrontation of Denver's record-setting offense led by Peyton Manning against the NFL's stingiest defense. Denver opened as a 1-point favorite over Seattle on the Glantz-Culver Line.
"It will be a great matchup," coach Pete Carroll said. "I think it's an extraordinary opportunity to go against a guy that set all the records in the history of the game."
Moments after Sherman tipped Colin Kaepernick's pass to Smith for the interception, the All-Pro cornerback jumped into the stands behind the end zone, saluting the Seahawks' raucous fans. With 12th Man flags waving everywhere, and "New York, New York" blaring over the loudspeakers, CenturyLink Field rocked like never before.
"That's as sweet as it gets," said Sherman, who also went into several rants about 49ers wideout Michael Crabtree, whom he called a "sorry receiver."
"This is really special," added Carroll, who has turned around the Seahawks in four seasons in charge. "It would really be a mistake to not remember the connection and the relationship between this football team and the 12th Man and these fans. It's unbelievable."
San Francisco (14-5) led 17-13 when Wilson, given a free play as Aldon Smith jumped offside, hurled the ball to Jermaine Kearse, who made a leaping catch in the end zone.
Steven Hauschka then kicked his third field goal following Kam Chancellor's pick, and Smith intercepted in the end zone on the 49ers' final possession.
"This feels even sweeter, with the amazing support we have had from the 12th Man," Allen said, comparing this Super Bowl trip to the previous one.
Until Seattle's top-ranked defense forced a fumble and had two interceptions in the final period, the game was marked by big offensive plays in the second half. That was somewhat shocking considering the strength of both teams' defenses.
And those plays came rapidly.
Marshawn Lynch, in full "Beast Mode," ran over a teammate and then outsped the 49ers to the corner of the end zone for a 40-yard TD, making it 10-10.
Kaepernick then was responsible for consecutive 22-yard gains, hitting Crabtree, then rushing to the Seattle 28. His fumble on the next play was recovered by center Jonathan Goodwin, who even lumbered for 2 yards.
Anquan Boldin outleapt All-Pro safety Earl Thomas on the next play for a 26-yard touchdown.
Then, Doug Baldwin, who played for 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, stepped up - and through San Francisco's coverage - on a scintillating 69-yard kickoff return that made the stadium shake for the first time all day.
That set up Hauschka's 40-yard field goal. And a frantic finish.
Seattle took its first lead on Wilson's throw to Kearse with 13:44 left, and CenturyLink rocked again.
The place went silent soon after when Niners All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman sustained an ugly left knee injury midway and was carted off. Bowman, who was having a huge game, had forced a fumble at the San Francisco 1, but Lynch recovered.
"I never heard him yell like that, or even stay down for a moment," teammate Patrick Willis said of Bowman.
The Seahawks had gotten their first turnover moments earlier when Cliff Avril stripped Kaepernick and Michael Bennett recovered. But Lynch and Wilson botched a handoff on fourth down on the play after Bowman's injury.
It took only two plays for Chancellor to haul in Kaepernick's underthrow to Boldin, and Hauschka's 47-yarder ended the scoring.
But not the excitement.
Kaepernick, who rushed for 130 yards, got San Francisco to the Seattle 18 with his arm. But his pass for Crabtree was brilliantly tipped by Sherman to Smith.
"We knew it would come down to us in the back end to win this thing," Sherman said.
The final play was similar to last year's Super Bowl ending, when Kaepernick missed Crabtree in the end zone from the 5 and Baltimore survived.
"It's tough. Any time you get this close to the Super Bowl and lose, it's pretty upsetting," tight end Vernon Davis said. "We just didn't get it. We've been down this road before in the same kind of situation. It's hard."
Whether it was nerves or just a great play by Aldon Smith, Wilson fumbled on Seattle's first snap. Smith got credit for a sack and a recovery, too - a defender's dream - at the Seahawks 15.
More staunch defense followed, this time by Seattle, which held and only gave up Phil Dawson's 25-yard field goal.
Seattle simply had no answers for Kaepernick's runs, looking either flat-footed or plain-out lost when he took off. He gained 98 yards on the ground in the first half, including a 58-yard second-quarter run, the longest of his three-year career and the longest Seattle's defense allowed all season.
But he was less effective in the second half and was plagued by turnovers.
Wilson came up with a huge improvisation of his own moments after Kaepernick's long jaunt. Wilson avoided the rush with some nifty scrambling before spotting Baldwin behind the defense for a 51-yard pickup.
All it resulted in was Hauschka's 32-yard field goal, making it 10-3.
Baldwin finished with six receptions for 106 yards.
And now it's on to New Jersey, where Carroll once coached the Jets for a season. That didn't end well - he was fired so the team could hire Rich Kotite. He heads back with a chance to add a Super Bowl crown to two national titles as coach at Southern California.
COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Jabari Brown tied a career high with 24 points and Johnathan Williams III grabbed 14 rebounds to help Missouri defeat Alabama 68-47 on Saturday.
Missouri (14-3, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) entered the game having lost two of three, including a 78-75 setback at Vanderbilt on Thursday. The Tigers only led 31-30 at the break against the Crimson Tide, but opened the second half with a 14-4 run to create some breathing room.
After shooting 52.6 percent in its 80-61 win against Mississippi State on Wednesday, Alabama converted 29.2 percent of its shots from the field against Missouri and couldn't pull closer than 13 points in the final 10 minutes.
Shannon Hale scored 12 points and Retin Obasohan added 11 points for the Crimson Tide (8-9, 2-2), which is 0-7 away from home this season.
Missouri benefited from the return of Jordan Clarkson in the second half after he sat the final 12 minutes in the first. Averaging 18.8 points per game, Clarkson scored four points before the break but finished with 16.
The Tigers yielded only five 3-pointers — one game after allowing 12 to Vanderbilt — and limited Alabama to 25 percent shooting from behind the arc. Coach Frank Haith had lamented the Tigers' inability to make several layups against Vanderbilt, and the team missed several more against the Crimson Tide.
Missouri shot 42.6 percent overall, including 52.4 percent (11 for 21) in the second half.
For its part, Alabama wasn't much better around the basket. Trevor Releford, a senior guard from Kansas City, Mo., leads the Crimson Tide with 18.9 points per game but tied a season low with 10 points on four of 16 shooting.
After its initial run after halftime, Missouri gradually kept pulling away in front of a season-high attendance of 11,003. Before the game, fans could receive autographs from six members of the St. Louis Cardinals, headlined by NL championship series MVP Michael Wacha.
The Tigers hoped to put their troubles behind them by scoring the first seven points of the game, but Alabama scored 12 of the next 14. The teams then traded baskets until Williams' jumper put Missouri ahead 31-30 with 53 seconds remaining before halftime.