DENVER -- When Hall of Famer John Elway sat across a nicely appointed desk from Peyton Manning, whose gold jacket is a future given, a promise was made.
A promise that went beyond the recruitment of the most decorated free agent to ever hit the open market in the NFL's history, a promise of what could be if both took a leap of football hope and faith.
Elway made a promise to Manning 22 months ago that he would "do everything in my power to make sure [Manning] finishes his career the way I finished mine."
Make no mistake, children across the Front Range leave their footy pajamas behind carrying the knowledge Elway won back-to-back Super Bowls in his final two seasons with the Denver Broncos. And in his third season as the Broncos' chief football decision-maker, hired by Pat Bowlen to restore glory and secure trophies, Elway has now seen Manning lead the Broncos into the Super Bowl.
Manning was at his take-that best Sunday as he swatted away the pregame chatter about his record against Bill Belichick, about his oh-so-many on-field battles with Tom Brady, with a performance that was as efficient as it was relentless in a 26-16 victory in the AFC Championship Game. Manning finished 32-of-43 for 400 yards and two touchdowns.
He wasn't sacked, was rarely even disturbed as he went about his work and did not throw an interception. The Broncos and Manning dropped a total of 507 yards worth of misery on Belichick's defensive game plan and flaunted the variety that has vexed defenses all season long.
Five different players caught at least three passes as eight players had receptions overall. Or as Belichick put it, in his own bottom-line way: "They've got a lot of good players."
That they do. And in the end, it was Belichick who provided the nudge that pushed the Broncos to where they were Sunday.
It was Jan. 14, 2012, when Belichick dismantled the Broncos' postseason run powered by Tim Tebow and a read-option offense. In a 45-10 hide-your-eyes Patriots win, Tebow was 9-of-26 for 136 yards and was sacked five times.
It dropped the curtain on what had been a dynamic stretch for the Broncos, who had unveiled the read-option after making Tebow the starter, a run that included an overtime win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild-card round. And the loss left the Broncos at a crossroads.
Broncos coach John Fox said this past week that "I remember we lost in the playoffs in New England that year, and it was a pretty good indicator of how far we had to get moving."
Then, after Manning was cut loose by the Indianapolis Colts a few weeks later, Elway and the Broncos closed the deal on the surgically repaired quarterback. Manning has gotten better and better since.
He threw a franchise-record 37 touchdowns in 2012, threw a league single-season record 55 touchdowns in 2013.
"There was a lot of uncertainty, whether he was going to play anymore," said Archie Manning, Peyton's father. "That kind of makes it special ... His age, what he went through, playing the quarterback position in this league, we tried to stay positive with him. He handled it so well."
"He's a great man off the field, a great leader and a great person to follow because he does everything right," said Broncos rookie running back Montee Ball.
But simply landing Manning wasn't all Elway did. He hit on some draft picks, players like Ball, Orlando Franklin and tight end Julius Thomas. He got a coach in Fox who assembled a staff with both veteran hands like defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and mark-it-down, up-and-comers like offensive coordinator Adam Gase. Elway also got more from inherited players such as Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno.
He had to deal with last January's crushing playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens; and Von Miller's six-game suspension to open the season; Fox's open-heart surgery; a long list of injuries that included Pro Bowl tackle Ryan Clady, Miller and Chris Harris Jr.; and making the right call on short-term signings like defensive end Shaun Phillips and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. He had to maintain his composure and hold the door against complacency.
"It meant we had to deal with everything we had to deal with, to keep the focus on what needed to be done," Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. " ... A lot of people talk about being good, but you have to do the things that need doing to be good. All the time, every day. All you want is a shot at the big game, and we have that. Now you get to work on that one game."
People are always telling Elway, because his quarterback is 37 years old and in his 16th season after four neck surgeries, that the Broncos need to win now. Elway's retort is not a surprise to anyone who knows him, to any of those who were in the huddle with him while the game was on the line.
Elway always says "it's about win [from] now on."
It was all there Sunday, awash in orange, played out with the emotion of a team making its first Super Bowl appearance since Elway was its quarterback. It will be a Super Bowl where the Broncos will be asked questions about whether their high-powered offense can handle a snowy day, can handle a muscle-bound defense from the NFC or if the Broncos' defense can be good enough, for one more game, to get it all done.
And it will be a Super Bowl game where a promise is kept.