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(Reuters) - Peyton Manning edged Tom Brady and the New England Patriots for perhaps the final time on Sunday, possibly getting the last word on a rivalry that has defined his career.
The Patriots have long been a roadblock in the way of Manning’s path to the Super Bowl, but in their latest AFC championship clash the wily quarterback and the Denver Broncos outlasted the Patriots 20-18.
Manning, who at 39 becomes the oldest quarterback to reach the Super Bowl, choked back emotion before he greeted Brady and longtime nemesis New England coach Bill Belichick for lengthy post-game handshakes.
“I can’t get away from either of those guys. It's been a special rivalry over the course of my career against the Patriots,” Manning told reporters.
“To play four times in the AFC Championship, with so much on the line, those games have been very special so I just wanted to take the time to share with Tom and Bill how much respect I have for them.”
The mutual respect has been earned over years of tussling. Manning and Brady have now faced off 17 times, with five of them coming in the post-season.
Brady has a 11-6 record in their head-to-head clashes.
Manning was long considered the gunslinger who smashed records en route to five regular-season MVP awards, while Brady was the gritty winner who has accumulated four Super Bowl titles.
But since Manning left Indianapolis and joined Denver for the 2012 season he has flipped the script in beating Brady in both of their AFC title tilts.
Manning now heads for his fourth Super Bowl appearance with a 13-13 overall playoff record.
“He’s a great player, someone I’ve always admired,” Brady conceded following defeat. “(The Broncos) have got a great team.”
Manning’s journey back to the Super Bowl this season was paved with more hardship than ever.
After a four interception game in November, a combination of performance and a foot injury saw him benched in favor of backup Brock Osweiler.
For the latter part of this campaign, Manning’s health has been a day-by-day challenge.
Then last month, a report by Al Jazeera claimed that shipments of human growth hormone (HGH) were sent to Manning's home in 2011, when the quarterback had neck surgery.
Manning strongly denied the claim, and made a return to the field in relief of Osweiler in a season finale victory against San Diego.
Manning will turn 40 in March and he would not speculate following the victory, but chose to bask in another victory against his premier peer.
“I’ve stated my entire career, I have great respect for Tom as a player and as a friend for the job he has done as a QB for that franchise,” Manning said.
“There’s no question this is a sweet day. This is a sweet victory.”
Editing by Andrew Both