DENVER – Breaking down the Denver Broncos’ 20-18 victory Sunday over the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game.
THE BIG PICTURE: In the much-hyped 17th matchup between quarterbacks Peyton Manning andTom Brady, it was the player that most had counted out that shined the brightest.
With a tightly contested victory, Manning and the Broncos are going to the Super Bowl.
Because of diminished arm strength and a litany of struggles all season long that stemmed from a partially torn plantar fascia, Manning and the Broncos came into this matchup as home underdogs. The narrative all week long was that the Broncos would need to play a nearly perfect game to take down the Patriots.
It turns out all they needed was a stingy defense and for Manning to be steady, smart and effective.
Brady fell to 2-7 in his career in Denver. He remains one of the NFL’s all-time greats at quarterback, but on Sunday, Manning, 39, was the better quarterback – by far.
Manning completed 17 of his 32 passing attempts for 176 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Brady, by comparison, was 27 of 56 for 310 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
Manning improved his record versus Brady to 6-11. More importantly, the Broncos QB has a chance to add to his legacy and will have the opportunity to win his second Super Bowl trophy.
HOW THEY DID IT: The Broncos built an excellent game plan to take down the Patriots.
It started on defense. Denver’s interior pass rush dominated New England’s offensive line, taking away the chance for Brady to step into his throws. Then, edge rushersDeMarcus Ware and Von Miller generated pressure and kept Brady uncomfortable throughout the game.
Denver, which ranked No. 1 in the NFL in the regular season with 52 sacks, produced four quarterback takedowns on Sunday. More importantly, the Broncos didn’t need to blitz too much to get to Brady.
Denver routinely dropped seven in coverage, allowing its secondary to blanket New England’s pass catchers. With the Patriots traditionally relying on a quick-release throws, Denver’s coverages got Brady and the Patriots out of rhythm.
On offense, Denver opted for a mostly balanced attack, with a slight lean toward the passing game. Manning analyzed New England’s defense and exploited the matchups he wanted, especially with tight end Owen Daniels, who hauled in two touchdown passes in the first half.
In the second half, Denver won by taking the advantage in the battle for field position. Though Denver managed only three second-half points, the Broncos’ defense constantly pinned New England deep in its own territory and didn’t let the Patriots move the chains.
KEY PLAY: It came down to the two-point conversion. After an incredible Rob Gronkowski touchdown catch to put the Patriots within two, Brady was picked off on the ensuing two-point try that kept the Broncos in the lead, and forced an onside kick.
KEY STAT: The Patriots offense looked like an extremely dangerous unit after a first-round bye and a 27-20 victory against the Chiefs in the divisional round. But Denver’s defense stifled New England all day long, allowing the Patriots to convert just six of 17 third-down attempts.
X-FACTOR: Broncos linebacker Von Miller was exceptional on Sunday, and the Patriots didn’t have an answer for him. He collected five tackles, one interception and 2.5 sacks, setting a Broncos single-game record for most sacks in a playoff game.
WHAT’S NEXT: It’s on to Santa Clara. The Broncos will face the winner of the NFC Championship Game between the Arizona Cardinals and the Carolina Panthers inSuper Bowl 50, held on February 7 in Santa Clara, Calif.
The Patriots, considered to be the favorites at the start of the postseason to emerge from the AFC, head home for a disappointing end to a season that saw the team start 10-0.