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In the end, Peyton Manning stood and delivered

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Denver's defense rises to the occasion (2:55)

Antonietta Collins and Eric Allen break down the Broncos' 23-16 win over the Steelers. (2:55)

DENVER -- Before throwing his longest pass of the biggest game of his season, Peyton Manning fell down.

Yep, just plain fell down. Untouched, in the pocket. Ker-plop. Insert Willie-Mays-on-the-Mets comparison here.

"Yeah, I want to take another look at that play," Manning said after the game. "I'd like to get here early in the morning and maybe get it deleted off the game film."

Maybe, but one man's pratfall is another man's metaphor. And a play on which Manning, under pressure, slipped, fell, got back up and then threw to Emmanuel Sanders for a 34-yard gain really does kind of sum up the season he has had.

"It's been a unique season," the Broncos' 39-year-old wizard said. "A lot of new things have happened this season."

What's not new is what's next: an AFC Championship Game on Sunday against nemesis Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Manning has lived that story so much, he must feel he's in a time warp. But for as brilliant and decorated a career as he has had, and for as many playoff games as he has played, Manning has never reached this point of a season in quite this way.

Manning's football epitaph will lean heavily on the level of responsibility he had for his teams' successes. For years in Indianapolis, Manning operated behind undermanned lines, with a rotating group of skill position players and, for the most part, an average defense. His legacy rests on the image of him choreographing the entire offense at the line, using the length of the play clock to adjust his guys, confuse the other guys, wave his hands, wiggle his fingers and shout "Omaha!" to produce spell after chain-moving spell.

But this season is not that. This Broncos team is not that. This is Manning in winter, his fluttering passes no longer pinpoint, his body breaking down. He missed six games this season with a foot injury and backed up Brock Osweiler for another game. Never has he averaged fewer yards per game than this season's 224.9. Not since he was a rookie has he averaged so few yards per pass (6.8) or thrown more interceptions than touchdowns. His 17 interceptions were the third-highest total of his career, and he played in only 10 games.

However ... here Manning is, with a home game against the Patriots to get him to his fourth Super Bowl and preserve his chance of winning a second. This time, though, Manning needs a heck of a lot more help than he ever has before. And everybody knows it.

"He managed the game right," Broncos cornerback Chris Harris said. "No turnovers. That's all we need."

Peyton Manning, game manager?

Don't laugh. Manning and the Broncos' offense sprang to life after the defense recovered Fitz Toussaint's fumble with 9:52 left and the Steelers up 13-12. But the 13-play touchdown drive that followed was still 10 runs and just three Manning throws. He needs to be able to rely on his running backs, which means he must play from under center. That he's willing to do that says he's not just a game manager right now but also a willing one.

"He can do both," Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said. "He's fine. He can play under center. He can play in the gun. We'd like to do both."

And Manning is on board, as he is with the idea that things couldn't really get going on Sunday until the defense made the game-changing play.

"Our defense has been outstanding all season. They have led us to this point," Manning said. "You have to win as a team. Defense did a great job holding them, and offensively, we did just enough to win."

That's a bizarre-sounding formula for a Peyton Manning team one win from the Super Bowl. But this is 2016, and Manning is clearly a quarterback who has confronted and come to accept his limitations. He needs more help than ever. He needs his defense to collect turnovers in key spots. He needs the run game to click. Next week, he's going to need his receivers and running backs not to drop as many balls -- six -- as they did on Sunday.

And it just might work. Keep it close, and you never know in this league -- or with this great a player. There's little doubt the Peyton Manning we used to know has fallen. But that doesn't mean he can't get up.