The Denver Broncos were superior to the New England Patriots for much of the season. Yet the Broncos were suspected of being vulnerable to the Patriots on Jan. 19 in the AFC title game, due to their collapse in New England on Nov. 24, and Peyton Manning and Tom Brady's playoff history. However, Denver and Manning were as dominant as they've been all year, in spite of not scoring 40-50 points -- yet 26 was more than enough in their 26-16 win.
After the Broncos punted on their first drive, they never went another drive without scoring until the final kneel down. In fact, the only time the Patriots' defense really showed up was on four third-down plays, which forced Matt Prater to kick four field goals. But between that and Manning's two touchdown passes, it was more than enough scoring for Denver.
It also helped that Brady was off his game for the first three quarters. Until leading two touchdown drives in near garbage time, Brady and the Patriots were rattled and overwhelmed. New England is never supposed to be like that on a big stage, given its history -- but then again, its history in the last eight postseasons now consists of three AFC title game losses, two Super Bowl defeats, two second round losses and one wild card knock out.
While Brady is supposed to be the clutch performer of this era, he was inadequate for the second straight championship Sunday. As for Manning, although he is labeled as a choker in January, and against the Patriots in general, he still threw for 400 yards and tied the record for most completions in a conference title game with 32.
The Broncos jumped to a big lead that should have been bigger, then withstood a too little, too late fourth quarter rally by an overmatched opponent, just like with the San Diego Chargers in the divisional round. Yet a 9-7 Chargers team that needed four straight wins to reach the playoffs put up more of a fight in Denver than the mighty Patriots.
Of course, without several comebacks this regular season, the Patriots might never have even made the playoffs. New England overachieved all year, which perhaps gave the impression that it would have enough magic for one more title run. Instead, the Broncos proved too formidable for even Brady to torment Manning one final time.