The Denver Broncos are 2016 AFC Champions. Photo: Charlie Riedel/AP
Denver –On Sunday, January 24, the American Football Conference championship game took center stage. It was the much talked about 17th matchup between two giants in the football world and perhaps their final meeting – quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. It was Manning, the oft-maligned quarterback who many had not only counted out but also wanted to push out that prevailed. The Denver Broncos beat the New England Patriots, 20-18 and will make their eighth Super Bowl appearance. Manning has been a part of four Super Bowls under four different coaches; Tony Dungy, Jim Caldwell, John Fox, and Gary Kubiak.
The game drew a 31.8 rating, the highest-rated AFC Championship game in 29 years. And that is music to the ears of many of the 77,067 (only 45 tickets were unused) fans in attendance at the Sports Authority Field at Mile High. And how did they do it? One word – DEFENSE.
DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller brilliantly led the defensive efforts of the Broncos who were ranked No. 1 in the NFL in the regular season in total defense, passing, and sacks. The defense had not allowed more than 29 points at home all season. The defense aka the Orange Crush were relentless in their pursuit of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, as he was hit a record 23 times. Prior to Sunday’s game, Brady had never taken more than 12 hits in a game. The defensive pummeling caused Brady to misfire 29 times.
There were so many defensive standouts for the Broncos. The combined play of Miller, Ware, Malik Jackson, Derek Wolfe, and Vance Walker mounted pressure not only on Brady but limited the Patriots ability to throw the long ball. He was sacked four times and picked off twice, once by Broncos linebacker Von Miller. The play of Miller was extraordinary. When asked about his play, the jovial Miller said, “Hey, I tell you. I can do it all, baby,” and do it all he did. Miller had five tackles, one interception, and 2.5 sacks, setting a Broncos single-game record for most sacks in a playoff game.
The LA Sentinel asked Miller who predicted a win if he got two interceptions, if he had a Super Bowl prediction. Miller smiled saying, “Nah…I’m good.” There was also the standout play of Broncos cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris. Of his former team and teammate, Talib said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody put that much pressure on Tom – ever. So, I think we did a hell of a job. That’s why we’re going to the ship.”
The Patriots offensive line completely collapsed under the relentless pressure making it virtually impossible for Brady to connect with his usual targets, Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman. Brady found running back Steven Jackson in the first quarter for a Patriots touchdown, however Patriots prolific kicker Stephen Gostkowski (who had 523 straight makes) missed the extra point attempt, a miss that would haunt them in the closing minutes of the game. With less than 90 seconds on the clock, Brady hit Gronkowski for a 4-yard TD but missed the two-point conversion attempt- intercepted by Talib with 12 seconds left on the clock. Brady ended the day with 27 of 56 for 310 yards, on touchdown and two interceptions. Brady fell to 2-7 against the Broncos in Denver.
Offensively, Denver quarterback Peyton Manning completed 17 of 32 passes for 176 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. “There is no question that this is a sweet day” as Manning took questions during the postgame new conference with his son Marshall standing with him. “This was a sweet victory.” It was Manning’s older brother Cooper who summed up the day best: “I’m really proud of Peyton. He just tried to get better. It’s amazing how things worked out. I’m kind of in awe of how the whole situation has unfolded, to be dinged and have a chance of maybe not playing at all the rest of the year, and then to go in there and win two playoff games, it’s just hard to write that script.”
The Broncos will face the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50, Sunday, February 7, 2016, Levi Stadium in Santa Clara, Ca.