Peyton Manning has a routine that some people might consider old-fashioned.
Every time a great NFL player retires, the Denver Broncos quarterback sends a handwritten note thanking him for his contribution to the game.
As for Manning, who turns 40 in March, he's not done penning his own football script.
He threw two touchdown passes Sunday to help the Broncos to a 20-18 victory over New England that secured a spot in Super Bowl 50, surpassing Denver great John Elway as the NFL's oldest starting quarterback to get that far.
"There's no question this was a sweet day, a sweet victory," Manning said.
In a game that was showcased as the 17th showdown between future Hall of Famers Manning and Tom Brady, it was Denver's defense that made the difference.
Despite Brady's directing a dramatic comeback down the stretch — throwing a four-yard touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski on fourth down with 12 seconds left, and putting the Patriots in position to tie — Denver's defense made a pivotal play that sent the orange-clad crowd into the emotional stratosphere.
Needing a two-point conversion — and harassed by a relentless pass rush — Brady took the shotgun snap, rolled a few steps to his right, then tried to throw across his body to Julian Edelman. Denver's Aqib Talib got a hand on the ball, however, and teammate Bradley Roby picked it off.
"It was just tough for us to ever get into a rhythm and finally to score some points here at the end," said Brady, who threw a whopping 56 passes but completed only 27, for 310 yards. "And then for it to come down to a two-point conversion is a tough way, obviously, to end the season."
The Broncos recovered the ensuing onside kick by New England, Manning took one knee to bleed the final seconds off the clock, and Denver was heading to the eighth Super Bowl in its history and the second in three years. Two years ago, Seattle posted a 43-8 victory over Manning and Co. on the game's biggest stage.
Denver improved to 8-2 in AFC title games, and 4-0 in home games against the Patriots in the postseason. The Broncos are exceptional in close games, too, going 11-3 this season in contests decided by a touchdown or less.
Sunday's game was a tour de force for Broncos linebacker Von Miller, whose 2 1/2 sacks set a club record for a postseason game. In the week leading up to the game, a reporter reminded Miller that, on average, Brady got the ball out in about two seconds.
"Sometimes, I only need like one," Miller said at the time.
He wasn't kidding. At times, the New England linemen barely slowed him, let alone neutralized him.
"Being an Aggie, I'm really proud of him," Denver Coach Gary Kubiak said of Miller, the No. 2 overall pick out of Texas A&M in 2011. "He's a special young man. I've known him since he was a kid. How far he's come, the man he's become, the player he's become . . . today, along with the defense, he was big time."
While the Broncos have had one turnover in 10 quarters — a backward pass Sunday that they mistakenly treated like an incompletion — giveaways were New England's undoing Sunday. Brady was picked off twice, not counting the conversion pass, and had a cellar-dwelling passer rating of 18.1 after the first two quarters.
Still, for Brady to keep the Patriots in the game, often with a defender twisting him to the ground as he threw, was remarkable.
Neither team could get its running game going, either. In fact, through three quarters, the two longest runs in the game were by the plodding Manning (12 yards) and Brady (11). The Broncos stuck with the run, and C.J. Anderson broke loose for a 30-yard gain in the fourth.
"We knew it was going to be a challenge running the ball," said Manning, whose 4-year-old son Marshall was with him at the podium during his postgame news conference. "But we felt like we had to stay committed to it just to create some balance and not become one-dimensional when we're throwing every time.
"We played these guys last year [a 43-21 loss at New England] and that's what happened. We got behind, we threw it every time, and they can force you to do that."
Manning, who missed the final seven starts of the season with a plantar-fascia injury in his left foot (but replaced an inefficient Brock Osweiler in the finale), was sharper Sunday than in an uneven divisional victory over Pittsburgh a week earlier. He hit on a deep ball to Emmanuel Sanders, and connected with tight end Owen Daniels on two touchdowns in the first half. He was 17 for 32 for 176 yards.
"Owen wanted this game as much as anybody; his season ended last year in New England," said Manning, referring to the 2014 Baltimore Ravens, then Daniels' employers, losing to the Patriots in the divisional round. "For him to get two touchdowns was awesome."
This season, the Broncos pulled off a rare regular-season/postseason sweep of the Patriots, having beaten them in overtime in late November when Osweiler was playing in place of the injured Manning.
He said he got through the hardest times this season by staying focused on the moment, instead of trying to look too far into the future.
"I stayed patient," Manning said. "I think it served me well, and staying patient in these past two playoff games definitely served our team well."
Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski made two field goals, matching Denver counterpart Brandon McManus, but got off to a bad start by missing an extra point in the first quarter. The 10-year veteran hadn't done that since his rookie year. In the end, the miss forced the Patriots to go for two after their late touchdown.
"I feel like I lost the game," Gostkowski said afterward. "I feel sorry for myself, but I don't expect people to feel sorry for me."