It will be a memorable Super Bowl no matter what happens. It will be Cam Newton’s first. It could be Peyton Manning’s last. The superb defenses of the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos will square off in 13 days in Santa Clara, California.

The Broncos and Panthers took far different paths on conference-championship Sunday to reach the sport’s biggest stage. The Broncos held on via a failed two-point conversion try by the New England Patriots with 12 seconds remaining to prevail, 20-18, in a tense AFC title game and the 17th career meeting between legendary quarterbacks Manning and Tom Brady. The Panthers followed with a dominant performance to overwhelm the Arizona Cardinals, 49-15, in the NFC championship game.

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning waves to the crowd after defeating the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship football game at Sports Authority Field. Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning waves to the crowd after defeating the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game at Sports Authority Field. Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports

Manning goes to his fourth career Super Bowl, seeking his second title. It will be his second Super Bowl as a member of the Broncos. The previous appearance resulted in a 43-8 defeat to the Seattle Seahawks on Feb. 2, 2014, in the first New York-area Super Bowl.

Then, Manning just had won his fifth league MVP award, coming off a regular season in which he threw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns. Now he returns on the heels of a regular season in which he threw nine touchdown passes and 17 interceptions and watched Brock Osweiler start at quarterback while he worked his way back from a foot injury. The list of quarterbacks to have had a worse season and still reached the Super Bowl isn’t very long, to put it kindly.

“You try to do your part and contribute,” Manning said Sunday. “When you’re not able to contribute because you can’t participate, you try to be patient and work yourself back into position to be available to participate and to try to make a contribution. So there’s different ways to do that. And there’s no question it’s been a different season and my role has been different, and my contributions are different. But I’m fortunate and grateful to have the opportunity to contribute still in some way. It’s a great honor to be going back to the Super Bowl. Playing Super Bowl 50, I’m really looking forward to it. It’s going to be a fun two weeks.”

Manning was Osweiler’s backup on the final day of the regular season before Coach Gary Kubiak turned to him that day for a lift and then went back to him as the starter for the postseason.

“I really tried to take it one week at a time all season long through my injuries and some of the other things that have gone on,” Manning said. “Just kind of staying in the moment, taking it one week at a time, not assuming that, ‘Hey, this is how it’s gonna be. This is the final decision here one way or the other.’ So I tried to take it one week at a time, stayed patient, and I think that’s served me well.”

Even before Manning knew which team the Broncos would face, he knew preparations would be challenging and time-consuming.

“It’s not really time to reflect,” Manning said. “We have two weeks to play. We’re gonna play a team that we are completely unfamiliar with. It’s gonna be a lot of film study. … We’ll enjoy this victory tonight. It was a special victory. It was a heck of a game.”

Indeed it was, and Manning could thank a Denver defense that was credited with 20 hits on Brady and sacked him four times. Newton, the likely league MVP this season, will present a different challenge to Broncos pass rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, as a far less stationary target.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton celebrates after beating the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship game at Bank of America Stadium. Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY Sports

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton celebrates after beating the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC championship game at Bank of America Stadium. Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY Sports

“I don’t want the credit,” Newton said in an on-field interview with Fox immediately following the lopsided win over the Cardinals. “This team, we won as a team. We came out here and fought our tails off. We did what a lot of people said we couldn’t do. It’s not over yet. . .. I don’t know who we’re playing yet. But we’ll be ready to go in two weeks.”

Informed that he would be facing Manning and the Broncos, Newton said: “Oh, wow, playing the sheriff. But anyway, we’re gonna live in the moment right now. We’re gonna be excited. I’m very excited about this organization, happy for Mr. [owner Jerry] Richardson, Coach [Ron] Rivera and the staff, and especially these teammates of mine, man. It’s great that we all battled and worked so hard. And for it to come to fruition and pay off is great.”

The Super Bowl potentially could be Manning’s final NFL game and, if so, he will attempt to make a glorious exit in the way that his boss, Broncos executive John Elway, once did. It is easy to make a case that Manning is the greatest regular season quarterback in NFL history. The knock on him has been his lack of postseason success, especially when compared to four-time Super Bowl winner Brady. But winning multiple Super Bowls would cast Manning’s postseason efforts in a different light.

He secured his sixth career win over Brady, and kept the Patriots from reaching a seventh Super Bowl under Brady and Coach Bill Belichick. Manning declined to address the topic Sunday of whether Brady-Manning XVII was the final chapter in the rivalry that defined their NFL generation.

“I’m not gonna get into what-if scenarios,” Manning said. “I’ve stated it all week. I’ve stated it my entire career: I have great respect for Tom as a player, as a friend and for the job he’s done as a quarterback for that franchise. And for Coach Belichick … I can’t get away from either of those guys. Just like today, it’s always been a tremendous challenge when we play against both of them together especially. My hat’s off to their entire team.”