Another Manning vs. Brady postseason classic never materialized because the Broncos' defense stuffed the run, pressured Brady at critical moments and took advantage of his ill-timed inaccuracy.
It amounted to an orange tidal wave that the Denver Broncos rode to a 26-16 victory over the
"Coming in with the two quarterbacks you have in Peyton and Tom Brady, there was all this talk about a shootout and who's going to play the better game," said Broncos cornerback
They consistently did, and Manning took advantage. He completed 32 of 43 passes for 400 yards and two touchdowns. His 118.4 passer rating was his fifth best in 22 career postseason games.
It was Manning's highest moment since he sat out the 2011 season after multiple neck surgeries, including a cervical fusion procedure. The conference title gratified that grueling rehabilitation and his effort required to start anew with the Broncos after leaving the Colts before the 2012 season.
Manning celebrated his third-career Super Bowl berth by posing for pictures with brothers Eli and Cooper inside a home locker room littered with orange, blue and white confetti.
"I put a lot of hard work in," Manning said. "I had a lot of people — teammates, coaches, trainers — help me along the way. We've definitely come a long way in two years. It's an exciting feeling."
The Broncos claimed their first AFC title since they won back-to-back Super Bowls in the 1997 and 1998 seasons. It seemed particularly sweet to players and coaches because of the adversity they have endured.
"Just standing here feels pretty good because I almost wasn't," said Fox, 58, who was the
The Patriots lost for the third time in eight AFC championship games under Coach
"Losing is not easy," Brady said. "I give them a lot of credit. They are going to be tough to beat in a couple weeks."
On an unseasonably warm day, the Broncos played with the offensive and defensive balance they have discovered this postseason.
Their receiving corps consistently won at the line of scrimmage and separated on the perimeter and down the field. The size, speed, physicality and agility of
Manning threw a one-yard touchdown to
"They did a good job mixing up plays, and, as always, he did an excellent job of reading the defenses," Belichick said. "And he got us in some situations that were less than ideal with his astute play-calling and recognition."
The Broncos are accustomed to such offensive domination under Manning. But on Sunday, their defense matched that output.
In building a 23-3 lead early in the fourth quarter, the Broncos limited the Patriots to 160 total yards. Brady finished 24-for-38 passing for 277 yards, one touchdown pass and a touchdown run, but he also had some critical misfires.
Late in the first quarter, receiver
Neither team turned the ball over, but the Broncos made enough plays at decisive moments.
And when the Patriots scored their final touchdown and threatened to make it a one-possession game with 3 minutes 7 seconds remaining, defensive end
"As a defense, we wanted to rise to the occasion," Knighton said. "We knew our offense was going to come out and get a rhythm, and we just wanted to do our part."