The Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks, buoyed by strong defensive efforts, won conference title games on their home turf and will meet in next month's Super Bowl.
In Sunday's afternoon game, the Broncos' Peyton Manning outplayed fellow superstar quarterback Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, completing 32 of 43 passes for 400 yards and throwing two touchdowns and no interceptions to lead his team to a 26-16 victory.
But the Broncos' defense was equally impressive at Sports Authority Field in Denver, holding Brady and the Patriots' vaunted offense to just three points for most of the game before surrendering two late touchdowns with the game well in hand.
Brady completed 24 of his 38 passes for 277 yards and threw one TD and no interceptions. Much of that production, however, came late in the game when Denver was willing to exchange yards for time off the clock.
Manning's greater efficiency gave the Broncos a 35:44 to 24:16 edge in time of possession, another big key to their victory. Denver also had the better running game, rushing for 107 yards compared to 64 for the Patriots.
The 37-year-old Manning quarterbacked the Indianapolis Colts to the Super Bowl title in 2007 and led that team back there again three years later, when they lost to the New Orleans Saints.
But this Super Bowl appearance is likely the sweetest considering it is his first time back since undergoing four neck surgeries that had cast serious doubt on his career.
"Being in my 16th season, going to my third Super Bowl, I know how hard it is to get there," the superstar quarterback said afterward.
In the Sunday evening game, the Seahawks overcame an early 10-0 deficit to battle back and defeat quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers 23-17 at CenturyLink Field in Seattle.
Seattle got off to an inauspicious start when quarterback Russell Wilson was sacked and fumbled on the very first play from scrimmage.
San Francisco recovered and took a 3-0 lead on a short field goal a couple of minutes later.
The score remained unchanged until the second quarter, when Kaepernick led his team up the field with two back-to-back runs of 12 yards and 58 yards. Anthony Dixon then capped off the drive by leaping over Seattle's defensive line for a one-yard score.
The Seahawks, however, clawed their way back into the game in the second half in part by containing Kaepernick, who threw for just 153 yards for the game.
Marshawn Lynch tied the game at 10-10 with a 40-yard dash early in the third quarter and then the Seahawks took their first lead on a 35-yard pass from Wilson to Jermaine Kearse at the 13:44 mark of the fourth quarter.
The game was still in the balance in the closing seconds, but a pass from Kaepernick to Michael Crabtree was tipped away by cornerback Richard Sherman and intercepted by linebacker Malcolm Smith.
Sherman then added insult to injury by trash-talking Crabtree in post-game interviews.
"I'm the best corner in the game. When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that's the result you gonna get. Don't you ever talk about me!" he told a sideline reporter in a rant that made headlines.
The Seahawks and Broncos, who used to be AFC West rivals until the Seahawks were moved to the NFC in 2002, will be meeting in the Super Bowl for the first time.
The Broncos won football's biggest showcase in 1998 and 1999, while the Seahawks fell short in their only Super Bowl appearance in 2006, losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
This year's Super Bowl will be played on Sunday, Feb. 2. EFE