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Stars lined up for Broncos? 

End Zone

Sunday began with my son, an avid football follower, asking whether Peyton Manning's place in history was on the line in the AFC Championship Game.

My nuanced answer: If New England won, Tom Brady always would rank higher than Manning among the best quarterbacks ever. But if Denver won, Manning would be regarded as better in their late years, and probably the two would rate about the same overall.

Little did we know that Manning would thoroughly outshine Brady in the 26-16 victory, earning Denver's quarterback his third Super Bowl berth to go with what surely will be his unprecedented fifth NFL Most Valuable Player award.

(Quick trivia question: What quarterback has won the most AFC titles in the past eight years? Answer: Manning has three, Brady and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger two, Baltimore's Joe Flacco one.)

Then came another surprise, as Seattle rallied from behind with 20 second-half points to topple San Francisco, 23-17, in the NFC finale.

Manning and the Broncos couldn't have drawn it up any better. They had perfect weather in Denver, great play-calling from offensive coordinator Adam Gase, and solid performances from everyone else. Then the Broncos had to like the NFC outcome, because they match up better against Seattle than San Francisco.

That's not an early prediction. Super Bowl XLVIII won't be easy, given Seattle's aggressive defense and the near-certainty of cold, nasty weather on the night of Feb. 2 at open-air MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

Perhaps the most unexpected aspect was how Denver and Manning toyed with New England's defense. Who imagined the Broncos piling up 507 yards, 400 passing and 107 rushing, with 27 first downs and a huge edge in possession time? Who envisioned Denver moving the ball at least 35 yards, and into Patriots territory, on every possession? And who guessed that Manning never once would be sacked, or even anything close?

How will that translate to a shivering Super Bowl? It won't. The best Denver can hope for is temperatures in the 30s, not much wind and no precipitation.

Another factor comes to mind — psychology. This suddenly feels like the late 1990s, when NFL fans everywhere (except for Denver's actual opponents) embraced the Broncos and John Elway as he punctuated his career with his first, and then second, Super Bowl victories. That's the feeling now for Manning, after all he's been through with the neck surgeries, being dumped by Indianapolis and then starting over in Denver — with Elway running the team's front office.

(On a personal note, it's hard not to feel a bit wistful. This is Denver's seventh Super Bowl ... but the first one that I won't be there to cover in person.)

Meanwhile, the more that America learns about the coaches, you have to figure Denver's humble John Fox, with his recovery from heart surgery, will win over more uncommitted fans than will Seattle's Pete Carroll, whose abrasive swagger goes back to his years at Southern Cal. And the Broncos picked up more short-term backers from the instant tsunami of negative reaction across social media to Seattle defensive back Richard Sherman's postgame outburst Sunday on FOX.

Sometimes, though, the nation's fans don't get their way. The storyline doesn't come to pass. Who knows, the NFL might inadvertently have ruined Denver's fantasy script by scheduling this Super Bowl in an adverse-weather environment.

One last football point: Nothing about the Broncos' late surge has been more stunning than how well the defense has played. Despite so many injuries, Denver has put together four superb defensive efforts in a row since its Dec. 12 home loss to San Diego, capped by shutting down the Patriots' running game.

Will it be good enough against Seattle, which will hammer away with runner Marshawn Lynch and hope young quarterback Russell Wilson holds up, far away from the Seahawks' amazing fans?

I wouldn't have given Denver a chance against San Francisco, and I was convinced the 49ers would be there. But against Seattle, after what we saw Sunday, you never know.

Maybe history really is on Peyton Manning's side. And, of course, Denver's.

routon@csindy.com

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