DENVER — As the clock ticked to zeros amid a roaring sea of rattling orange, Peyton Manning took off his helmet and ran away from the celebration.
Before even shaking his fist into the air, he shook hands with the defeated New England Patriots.
As his Denver Broncos teammates danced into the raucous Sports Authority Field locker room after a dominating 26-16 victory in the AFC championship game, Manning walked quietly through the madhouse with the most unusual of posses.
He was accompanied by his two brothers. They hugged and posed for photos. Peyton would not stand in the middle.
It was long after the quarterback's brilliant 400-yard game Sunday returned him to his third Super Bowl that one could confirm this was really about Peyton Manning. That moment finally occurred when he was sitting alone, facing his locker, shirtless.
Only then could one see the long scar running down the back of his neck.
Manning, 37, is back in the Super Bowl just two years after many thought he would never be back in football. Manning is taking the Broncos to the biggest sporting event in America just two years after being cut by the Indianapolis Colts after missing a year because of neck surgery. Manning is headed for what could be not only his most glorious football moment, but perhaps his last football moment, as he may be forced to retire depending on a postseason neck exam.
It was an unseasonably warm afternoon chilled with such emotion that Manning's close friend and tight end Jacob Tamme wept on the field, his father Archie teared up in the locker room, and his teammates set the record for superlatives.
Said receiver Demaryius Thomas: "To do what he just did in a conference championship game? Now, that's amazing."
Said defensive tackle Terrance Knighton: "All the years going against him, all he's been through, he is just unbelievable."
Start spreading the news. The New York Super Bowl is Manning up.
"You do take a moment to realize that we've done something special," said Manning later.
With the league's narrative dominated by the deeds of flashy young quarterbacks, the NFL needs Manning's kind of special. Amid the coldest of Super Bowl settings, the NFL needs his warmth in this game.
"He's probably not very hip," said Tamme. "But he loves to win."
Manning, in his 16th season, runs in the tiny, halting steps of a chicken. He throws passes that frolic like a butterfly. In an era when quarterbacks kiss their biceps, he doesn't really have any biceps. During a time when quarterbacks pose after touchdowns, you often can't even find him after touchdowns. Manning was physically notable Sunday only in that he wore one black glove on his right throwing hand and was constantly adjusting the pads around his aching knees.
Oh yeah, and during his audible signals, he would shout out not only his trademark "Omaha," but also the name of his son, Marshall.
His appearance was wonderfully old-fashioned, but his record in these types of games was wholly unremarkable. Manning took the field with a 4-10 lifetime record against the seemingly flawless Tom Brady, as well as a 10-11 playoff mark that recently led a Denver newspaper to run his photo with a dark cloud over his head.
"To see what he's gone through, what happened makes me so happy for him," said Tamme. "When it hit me, there were tears in my eyes."
It hit the Patriots early, when Manning bobbled a shotgun snap for three agonizing seconds and still managed to grab the ball and hit Eric Decker for seven yards.
"I'm sure some people will have some fun with me tomorrow when we're watching the game film of that particular play," he said.