The 17th matchup between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning was another memorable one, competitive through four quarters and full of big plays. What it lacked was big-play throws from these big-name QBs, with both signal-callers stifled against fierce defenses behind shaky offensive lines.
Three times in the 4th quarter, Brady tried to execute a comeback against Denver's "No Fly Zone" defense. Three times in the 4th quarter, he was denied: on 4th and 1, and 4th and 6, and during the Patriots' two-point attempt after Rob Gronkowski made Gronk-like unbelievable plays. Bradley Roby intercepted Brady's two-point attempt and the Broncos are going to the Super Bowl!
Bill Belichick won the coin toss and elected to receive... what? Weird. Perhaps the Patriots wanted to start hot on offense? Perhaps they wanted Manning to have to play from behind? Perhaps they wanted to test the confidence of the Broncos' defense?
I like to think those were the thoughts entering Belichick's mind by electing to receive, something even Patriots fans admitted they couldn't recall Belichick doing since the inception of the ability to defer. Because the exact opposite happened, and it's pleasant to imagine foiling Bill Belichick's plans.
Denver's defense started out the game in dominant fashion, getting close to Tom Brady and smothering his receivers. Five plays into the Patriots' drive, they were forced to punt.
Enter Peyton Manning.
It was easily Manning's best opening drive of the 2015-2016 season, marching 83 yards down the field in 11 plays, capped off by this beautiful wide-open Daniels touchdown.
A few drives later, disaster struck, as Manning threw to an open Ronnie Hillman in the flat, but the missed catch went slightly behind The Sheriff, and Hillman didn't chase it down. The Patriots recovered what was determined to be a lateral upon review, giving Brady and company very short field position. The Patriots took advantage behind Steven Jackson, and a missed extra point later it was Broncos 7, Patriots 6.
It wasn't long before the Broncos struck back, with their defense leading the way. Broncos defenders were ruthless - particularly Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Derek Wolfe, and Malik Jackson, each sharing sacks or big hits on Brady. Miller didn't only hit Brady; he intercepted him too. Miller jumped Ron Gronkowski's route and pulled down Brady's
Manning went right back to work thanks to the short field and found Daniels again. On 3rd and 6 from the New England 12, the Broncos exorcised some of their red zone demons with Manning's perfect pass to Daniels near the corner of the end zone.
The Broncos then hit Brady some more. Jackson's massive quarterback hit had a profound impact on both Brady and the game as it allowed Darian Stewart to come up with an easy interception of Brady, his second of the day.
At halftime, Tom Brady had an 18.1 passer rating with two interceptions. Peyton Manning had a 103.8 passer rating with two touchdowns.
Broncos have made Tom Brady bleed his own blood pic.twitter.com/BSTxkCJQpW— The Cauldron (@TheCauldron) January 24, 2016
Denver's second half opening series was bad. A run for nothing was followed by a big sack from the Patriots' Jamie Collins. On 3rd and 23, C.J. Anderson's run for seven did little to offset the damage, and Denver's potential second-half advantage after the coin toss wasn't realized as the Broncos punted it away.
The Patriots would not be denied yardage the entire game, with Rob Gronkowski finding 31 yards with a big catch-and-run than Danny Amendola moving the chains again with a 10-yard completion. In the blink of a second half eye, the Patriots were in Denver's red zone with Brady targeting the end zone. Brady went after Chris Harris Jr. on third down - that wasn't a good idea - and the Broncos stopped New England's march. Patriots 12, Broncos 17 after a Gostkowski field goal.
Both defenses took control in the 3rd quarter, with each quarterback suffering multiple sacks. By the time the 4th quarter came around, Brady had been sacked thrice, and Manning had been sacked four times. The Broncos managed one drive of substance thanks to a massive 30-yard run by C.J. Anderson, and a missed end zone pass and field goal later it was Broncos 20, Patriots 12 with less than a quarter to play.
Deep into the next drive, the Broncos' defense faced what should have been its play-of-the-game. 4th and 1 on the Broncos' 19 (easily in field goal range), and the Patriots went for it. The Pats' playcall was on-the-money; Denver's defense was moreso. Tom Brady dumped it off short to avoid Denver's quickly-closing DeMarcus Ware, and Chris Harris Jr. smothered Julian Edelman before the receiver could meet the line of scrimmage. Broncos' football.
CFH— Benjamin Hochman (@hochman) January 24, 2016
Unfortunately for the defense, the offense did them no favors. A frustratingly quick 3-and-out gave Brady the ball back with plenty of time (over five minutes). A quick slant to James White got the Patriots' drive rolling. Another quick post to Gronk added 19 yards. The Patriots were marching again, but again, they struggled as they entered Denver's red zone. This time, on 4th and 6, Brady's receivers were smothered, and with pressure mounting, Brady threw up a 20-yard Hail Mary. Aqib Talib batted down the ball (with two other Broncos defenders also swarming Gronk), which fell IN-COM-PLETE.
...But so did every one of Peyton Manning's throws, as the Broncos went 3 and out again. The Broncos let Tom Brady and the Patriots hang around again.
Did the #Broncos even get a first down in the 4th quarter?— MileHighReport (@MileHighReport) January 24, 2016
The Broncos relied on their No. 1 NFL defense again. This time, Gronkowski proved somewhat unstoppable, converting two Brady-thrown 4th downs including a touchdown that made it Patriots 18, Broncos 20. But Bradley Roby's interception sealed the deal.
The Denver Broncos have won all season behind their defense; whether it was a last-moment fumble recovery against the Chiefs in Week 2 or a 4th quarter forced fumble in the Divisional Round against the Steelers, Denver's "No Fly Zone" has been the league's unheralded MVU (Most Valuable Unit). They proved it again and made it to the Super Bowl Sunday.