Long arm of the law: Broncos win AFC Championship

åIt was the 17th and final meeting of legendary quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, but in the end that was a secondary story. It was the defenses which ran wild, and the league’s best carried the Denver Broncos past the New England Patriots 20-18 to advance to their record-tying eighth Super Bowl.

The Broncos sacked Brady four times, but hit him 20 times. Von Miller was particularly unblockable, registering 2 1/2 of those sacks along with one of two interceptions the D recorded. Denver held New England to 2-of-15 on third down and to only 44 rushing yards. Brady had the lowest completion percentage of his career in a playoff game, 48.2% on 27-of-56, and appeared to be hurting from the constant punishment received. The Denver defense had to carry the mail for their own struggling offense.

Peyton Manning is at the end of a wonderful career. Age 39, and on the other side of major injury, ‘The Sheriff’ has to work harder for less than he has ever had to and now has a different role, game manager. On this day, he was a pedestrian 17-for-32, with 176 yards and two touchdowns. The Denver offense had one turnover to New England’s three. It was on a shrewd challenge by Patriots coach Bill Belichick on a backwards pass called forward by the officials. The reversal led to a Patriots touchdown, the only one they would score until the frantic final few moments.

In the first half, Manning found tight end Owen Daniels for a pair of touchdowns, with the first a 21-yarder that put them up 7-0, and the second a 12-yard throw that extended the lead. In between was the replay reversal which led to a Steven Jackson plunge from the ‘one.’ Following that was a shocking and critical missed extra point by Stephen Gostkowski. It was Gostkowski’s first missed extra point since 2006, a streak of 524 consecutive kicks. The miss made it only 7-6 and put them behind the score all afternoon. After the second Broncos touchdown that made it 14-6, the defenses settled in. There would be nothing but field goals until late in the game.

Denver was ahead 20-12 in the fourth quarter when the ride got rough. The Patriots were charging and the Broncos were holding on. Brandon McManus’ 31-yard FG with 10:02 remaining for Denver set things in motion. New England went 63 yards in 11 plays, but on 4th-and-1 from the Denver 17, Belichick eschewed the field goal, and Brady’s pass in the flat to Julian Edelman was stopped for a one-yard loss on a hit from Chris Harris and Aqib Talib. After a three-and-out, New England marched 57 yards in eight plays. But once again, Belichick decided against a short field goal and Brady’s pass for Rob Gronkowski on fourth-and-six from the 14 went incomplete.

Yet another three-and-out gave the ball back one final time, and the Patriots went 50 yards in eight plays, converting two fourth downs. Then the first, on fourth-and-10 from the 50, a beautiful 40-yard toss to Gronkowski in the seam to set up first-and-goal. The second, on fourth-and-goal from the four, and a scrambling Brady once again found the amazing Gronk in the back of the end zone. The athletic catch made it 20-18, and with that missed extra point they had to go for two. Bradley Roby picked it off for the Broncos. A failed and feeble onside kick followed, and Manning kneeled to run off the final 12 seconds, and the Broncos celebrated a classic.