LOS ANGELES: Peyton Manning set up a new installment of his 15-year rivalry with Tom Brady on Sunday (Monday in Manila) after steering the Denver Broncos to a hardfought NFL play-off victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The 39-year-old Denver quarterback will face New England Patriots superstar Brady for the fourth time in an American Football Conference championship game after a gritty 23-16 win over the Steelers.
Manning’s experience proved crucial against Pittsburgh, as Denver mounted a late, time-consuming fourth quarter drive to score the game’s decisive touchdown through running back C.J. Anderson.
“I think the best thing today was that we stayed patient,” Manning said. “But when we needed to we put together a big drive to get the touchdown that put us up.”
Manning has won two of his three previous AFC championship duels with Brady, with the most recent victory a 26-16 win in 2014.
Manning, who first faced Brady back in 2001 with the Indianapolis Colts, trails the New England quarterback 11-5 in the overall head-to-head record.
The Broncos signal-caller played down the significance of what will be his 17th meeting with Brady next week, when a place in Super Bowl 50 will be the prize for the victor.
“It’ll be the Broncos versus the Patriots,” Manning smiled.
‘Big Ben’ rings in vain
Defeat was hard on Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who made 24 completions from 37 passing attempts to pile up 339 yards against one of the best defenses in the NFL.
Pittsburgh led 13-12 through a Fitzgerald Toussaint touchdown and two Chris Boswell field goals while Denver had been forced to settle for four Brandon McManus field goals.
The pivotal play came when Toussaint spilled the ball with less than 10 minutes left and Denver recovered.
Manning then marched the Broncos upfield on a 14-play 65 yard drive which took nearly seven minutes off the clock for Anderson’s touchdown. A two-point conversion left Denver in the box seat and they duly closed out the win as Pittsburgh ran out of time.
In the day’s other NFL action, the number one seeded Carolina Panthers advanced to a National Football Conference championship game against the Arizona Cardinals after surviving a second half fightback from the Seattle Seahawks to win 31-24 in Charlotte.
The Panthers looked to be romping to an easy victory after a devastating first-half points blitz saw them race into a 31-0 lead as Seattle’s vaunted defense was steamrollered by Carolina’s formidable attacking arsenal.
The Seahawks, however, staged a superb second half rally with quarterback Russell Wilson throwing for three touchdowns and finishing with 366 yards.
Seattle ultimately fell short, and when Carolina safely recovered an onside kick with just over a minute remaining the contest was effectively over.
Carolina quarterback Cam Newton later admitted the Panthers had faced nervous moments as Seattle dominated the scoring in the second half.
“It was excruciating to watch,” Newton said. “It was a tale of two halves. We’ve got to be better than that,” added the MVP favourite, who went 16-for-22 for 161 yards.
The Panthers had scored on their very first possession with a four-play 75-yard drive that ended with Jonathan Stewart scoring with a four-yard run.
Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly then intercepted Wilson for a touchdown as the Panthers went 14-0 up before Stewart grabbed his second six-pointer.
Graham Gano kicked a field goal to stretch Carolina’s lead to 24-0 before Newton picked out Greg Olsen in the endzone to put the Panthers 31-0 ahead.
Seattle dominated after half-time, quickly scoring touchdowns through Jermaine Kearse and Tyler Lockett to give coach Pete Carroll’s team hope.
Kearse grabbed another score in the fourth quarter but the Panthers survived.
“When you start like that, it’s going to be tough,” Seahawks wide receiver Kearse said. “We ran out of time.”