By Mark Schiff
In the end, in a word: Defense.
For all of the hype surrounding the 17th and presumably final meeting between star quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, the AFC Championship between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots came down to stellar play between two of the NFL’s best defenses. And following a last-minute Patriots touchdown, Denver’s top-ranked D would need one more stop on a two-point conversion to seal the win.
Brady’s final pass was tipped by cornerback Aqib Talib and intercepted by Bradley Roby, completing a thrilling 20-18 victory over New England that sent the Broncos to Santa Clara, California for Super Bowl 50, where they’ll face the Carolina Panthers. It was a fitting win for a Denver team that showed an unprecedented knack for making big plays in close games.
As Denver prepares for their record-tying eighth trip to the Super Bowl, here are your AFC Championship team grades.
The Broncos offense put together one of their best drives of the season on the team’s opening possession, as Manning hit a series of short passes and found tight end Owen Daniels up the seam for an early 7-0 lead. But the Patriots defense tightened up as the game wore on and Denver’s final offensive numbers were nothing to gloat about (244 total net yards).
Although his individual stats were fairly pedestrian (17-33 for 176 yards and two TDs), Manning played his game manager role to the hilt, limiting his mistakes (a lateral pass in the first quarter that was recovered by the Patriots and quickly converted into a touchdown) and generating just enough offense to hang on for the win. The running game was solid as well, if unspectacular, as C.J. Anderson finished with 72 of the team’s 99 rushing yards. But with Denver staking an early lead and never trailing, the game’s flow played to the team’s strengths.
Denver’s transformation from offensive juggernaut to defensive powerhouse in just two short years is nothing short of remarkable. Looking every bit like the league’s best unit, the Broncos defense had an incredible afternoon. As the pressure from the pass rush forced Brady into bad throws, the secondary did an excellent job covering receivers and Denver’s run-stoppers held New England to just 44 yards on the ground.
Among all of the defensive stars, Von Miller deserves special recognition. In one of his best games as a pro, Miller picked off a Tom Brady pass, sacked the quarterback 2.5 times (a playoff record for the team), had two tackles for loss and burned through the Pats offensive line like a flame in dry grass. Denver’s consistently excellent defense is the primary reason why the offense doesn’t need to be anything more than middling. After holding one of the NFL’s best offenses to just 12 points through almost the entire game, Denver’s D heads into the Super Bowl a justifiably confident bunch.
Special Teams: B-
Denver’s suffocating defense means that the team is more than comfortable playing the field position game and punter Britton Colquitt did a fine job of consistently pinning the Patriots deep in their own territory. Unfortunately, a few mistakes on special teams cost them, especially on the Patriots final drive, when Julian Edelman got the ball to midfield thanks to soft coverage. The good news is that after struggling a bit down the stretch, kicker Brandon McManus is returning to early-season form, as he made field goals of 52 and 31-yards.
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has done an incredible job of designing his defense around the players strengths and on Sunday, the entire coaching staff followed suit, as Denver’s game plan was conservative in all the best ways. The Broncos defense is now the unit that props up the team as a whole, so the offense is tasked mostly with limiting mistakes and getting points when they’re available for the taking.
It’s a strategy that’s not always sexy, and Denver’s close games have caused no small amount of consternation throughout Broncos country. But it’s a formula that works, and if Denver can pull it off for one more game, they’ll be Super Bowl champs for the third time.
Mark Schiff is a freelance writer and music journalist for AXS.com. In 2013, his coverage of the Seattle Seahawks ended in heartbreak when they defeated the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Now covering his beloved hometown team, his knowledge and passion for pro football has resulted in multiple fantasy football championships. Find him on Twitter at @mihilites.