Broncos' quarterback Peyton Manning, right, threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns Sunday as Denver beat New England, 26-16, in the AFC Championship Game, ending the Patriots' dreams of advancing to a sixth Super Bowl under the guidance of head coach Bill Belichick.
And, with that, the window of opportunity is all but closed in New England, perhaps open just enough to hear a faint whistle on a windy day.
The Patriots’ Super Bowl dream ended Sunday in the Mile High City as Peyton Manning carved up New England’s secondary with surgeon-like precision to lead the Broncos to a 26-16 win in the AFC Championship.
The second-seeded Patriots lost in the conference title game for the second year in a row and have now gone nine years without a Super Bowl championship since winning three out of four during the height of the Bill Belichick era, a stretch that includes three losses in the AFC Championship and two Super Bowl losses to the New York Giants. The loss ends another superb season for 36-year-old quarterback Tom Brady while raising doubts as to whether or not he’ll have a chance to win another Super Bowl before his time runs out.
Fresh off a record-setting regular season, Manning finished with 400 yards on 32-of-48 passing with two touchdowns. He never got sacked and, in fact, was flushed out of the pocket just once against New England’s non-existent pass rush. Tight end Julian Thomas, who did not play against the Patriots in November, finished with a team-high eight catches for 85 yards while teammate Demaryius Thomas lit up the secondary with 134 yards and a touchdown, mostly after New England’s top cornerback, Aqib Talib, left the game in the first half with a rib injury. The Broncos were incredibly efficient on third down, which played a huge factor in the time of possession, which favored Denver by more than 11 minutes.
More importantly, the Broncos played mistake-free football; no turnovers, no fumbles and only 34 yards worth of penalties. The final score would’ve been more lopsided were it not for two garbage-time touchdown drives by the Patriots once Denver went into prevent mode, otherwise the Broncos were near-impenetrable for the better part of three quarters despite missing linebacker Von Miller and defensive back Chris Harris.
The clock struck midnight on LeGarrette Blount as the Broncos held him to six yard on five carries, a complete non-factor after he had rushed for four touchdowns the previous week against Indianapolis. With limited weapons, Brady struggled, focusing exclusively on Julian Edelman, who was targeted 15 times and caught 10 passes, Shane Vereen and the oft-injured Austin Collie, who caught four of his six targets.
Denver led 13-3 at the half courtesy of a pair of field goals by Matt Prater and a 1-yard touchdown pass from Manning to Jacob Tamme and extended that lead to 20-3 at the start of the third quarter with a 14-play, 90-yard drive that chewed 7 minutes and 8 seconds off the clock, culminating with Manning’s 3-yard touchdown strike to Thomas. The transition between halves was huge; Denver won the opening coin toss and deferred, thereby receiving the second-half kickoff, and ran back-to-back drives at the end of the second quarter and the start of the third that lasted more than 10 minutes.
By the time the Patriots got the ball in the second half, nearly half the third quarter had already elapsed and they trailed by three scores with only 25 offensive plays to their credit. New England answered with its longest drive, advancing to the Denver 29 on 13 plays, but Brady got sacked on 4th-and-2 by Terrance Knighton and the Broncos added another field goal by Prater at the start of the fourth on the ensuing drive to put the game out of reach.
Trailing 23-3, the Patriots scored on Brady’s 7-yard touchdown pass to Edelman and a five-yard run by Brady with 3:07 to go and had a chance to cut Denver’s lead to eight, but Vereen came up short on the two-point conversion attempt, the final nail in New England’s coffin. The Patriots burned all of their timeouts on defense on Denver’s ensuing drive and Manning officially closed the door with a 23-yard bomb over the top to Tamme, giving him 400 yard on the nose.
Brady finished a respectable 24-of-38 with one touchdown and 277 yards, but was sacked twice and flushed out of the pocket several times throughout the game. He also missed two deep balls early in the game that might've turned the tide had he been on the mark. The ground game that fueled New England’s offensive attack the last three weeks of the season totaled just 64 yards with Vereen rushing for 34. The Broncos weren’t as prolific running the ball as they were in New England in November when they cracked 200 yards on the ground, but Knowshon Moreno (59) and Montee Ball (43) still combined for 102 yards and picked up key first downs to keep the chains moving.
In the end, it was Manning’s game and he delivered an MVP-worthy performance, adding another chapter to a season that included 55 regular-season touchdown passes and 5,477 yards, both new NFL records. Sunday’s win increased his lifetime playoff record to 11-11 and sent the Broncos to their first Super Bowl in 15 years.
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