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'Disrespected' Broncos' defense snatches Super Bowl berth from defending champs

As it has so many times this season, a Broncos win came down to a defensive stop. And boy did our boys come up big.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It just couldn't have gone any other way.

Down to the wire.

The "bad guys" making a move and the "good guys" standing ground.

Again and again and again. And again.

Until it was over...and the good guys had won.

We held true to what we are. We won a lot of games this year just grinding as a football team, playing great defense, making the play at the right time. Great victory...just very proud of our team.  -Gary Kubiak, head coach

"We came into this game knowing what we had to do. We knew if we could get that done that the game was going to be over with," said Von Miller, who sacked Tom Brady twice plus aided DeMarcus Ware with another, intercepted Brady once and pressured the Patriots quarterback four times. "We knew the situation that we were in and just wanted to make it happen."

The defense made it happen alright, playing like a unit possessed - tallying four sacks, an unprecedented 20 QB hits and two interceptions.

And perhaps more impressively - though so familiar - was the defense stopping the Patriots on two fourth downs on two different drives inside the final five minutes, and then after giving up a touchdown on a massive catch by Rob Gronkowski, intercepted TB12 on the two-point conversion attempt to save the still oh-so-precarious two-point lead.

"You have to dig deep the whole game," Miller said of the effort in those waning minutes. "You're talking about the Patriots. I don't think we budged a second at the end of the game."

It was such an impressive display of grit that Broncos' quarterback Peyton Manning felt compelled to acknowledge how happy he is to only have to face this 2015-16 version of the Orange Crush defense in practice.

"[The defense] knew they were challenged all week, and they answered the challenge," Manning said, adding he's "enjoyed playing on the same team" with the NFL's No. 1 defense. "It is special to watch them work and watch them perform out there on Sundays."

And just in case you need some crazy-good stats to back up what you already assumed had to be the most fabulous defensive stop on the Patriots this season, here are some gems:

  • Patriots were 4 for 28 on third-down conversions against Broncos defense in two games this season.
  • Brady's 20 QB hits were the most to any quarterback all year.
  • Brady's 11-yard first-down scamper remained the team's longest running play all game
  • Brady completed less than 50 percent of his passes and threw two interceptions for the first time in his career.

Perhaps making it even sweeter for the defense - if that could even be possible - is that despite a No. 1 ranking as a defense, virtually everyone outside Broncos Country thought the NFL's best offense would be too much for the Broncos.

"As good as defense we've been playing all year that was the focal point - that Tom Brady was going to shred us apart," noted T.J. Ward. "We took total disrespect to that. Total disrespect. We dominated him. They're a great team, but we just don't like being disrespected."

Chris Harris, Jr. had a friendly reminder for the national media and non-believers: "defense wins championships."

"All week everybody counted us out," the cornerback said. "They said I couldn't cover [Julian] Edelman, they said we couldn't cover their receivers and their tight ends or whatever, and we held them to 18 points. That's the No.1 offense in the league, and we shut them down."

Shutting down the league's most prolific offense - an offense that has basically laughed at the premise you can't pass on every down - came down to confidence by the Broncos defense.

"We're confident in ourselves, we're confident in our abilities and we showed it on the field today," Brandon Marshall said, noting that they continue to make big plays on big downs. "We make them, that's what we do. When you look at our whole entire season, the defense makes plays all the time, so that's just what we did."

If Bill Belichick's decision to keep the ball after winning the coin toss was a slight nod of disrespect to the Broncos defense, he most certainly thought differently after their first three possessions ended in punts and of the next five, the offense was intercepted twice and had to punt a fourth time.

All this thanks to excellent coverage that gave Miller and Ware just a millisecond longer to pressure No. 12 into some bad decisions. And Brady gave a ton of credit to the Broncos defense.

"The've got a great rush, great pass rushers," Brady said, noting defenders came from all angles. "Complement that with good coverage and it was tough for us to get into a good rhythm. It was a tough day. A tough day."

Brady added that the Patriots could never play the game on their own terms.

They've got a great rush. It was a tough day. A tough day.   -Tom Brady, Patriots quarterback

"It was an uphill battle all day," he said. "It's a disappointing loss because this team fought hard. Just to come up short on a two-point play, it would have been a fun overtime opportunity, but we just came up one play short."

For the Broncos' offense, the start of the game appeared to signal a big scoring day as Manning marched the group 83 yards while eating up nearly six minutes on the clock before hitting a strike to wide open Owen Daniels in the end zone. But it would take Miller intercepting Brady on the Broncos' 20-yard line for the offense to sniff the red zone the rest of the game, save one time inside the Patriots' 10 in which the Broncos had to settle for a second-but-ultimately-game-winning field goal.

To say the running game was struggling is a major disservice to just how anemic it was outside of a 30-yard blast from C.J. Anderson to start the fourth quarter.

But to mention that Manning's 12-yard rush for a first-down was the second-longest run for the Broncos on the day (and was the leading rush for two quarters) is far more telling - not just of the slogging running attack but also of the quarterback's desire to win the game at whatever cost.

"He's going to do what he has to do to win, I know that," head coach Gary Kubiak said. "I mean he's one of the greatest competitors ever in this league. For him to take off and make that play...I can't tell you how he has led this group the last three weeks. It's been tremendous."

Though Manning's first down ended up being for naught as the Broncos punted, it definitely sent a message - as much to his own team as to the opposing one - that Peyton Freaking Manning was not going down without a fight.

"This team is unbelievable," said Owen Daniels, who was responsible for both touchdown catches. "So much resilience. Guys we just grind every week and don't care what kind of situation we're in. We're down at times, it doesn't look good at times and just keep fighting."

That fight-to-the-end mentality carried through in all phases as the offense stayed patient - despite not scoring - and did not turn the ball over while letting special teams and defense keep the Broncos on top.

"I think they tried to not make us run in the first half," Anderson said. "I just think they wanted to take the run game away, which they did a pretty good job. But at the end of the day, if you want to put the game in a Hall of Famer quarterback's hands, that's what they did and they got beat for it."

Barely, for sure. But beat all the same.

"That's our game and it is working," said Emmanuel Sanders, who led receivers with 62 yards on 5 receptions. "I know a lot of people don't like it, they always count us out. I heard predictions that said the Patriots were going to come in here and beat us. We are a team of resilience, we got the job done and that is all that matters."

Because the good guys won.