It was different. The Broncos defeated the Patriots 20-18 in the AFC championship on Sunday, in a game that might have been the final installment of the storied Peyton Manning-Tom Brady rivalry. Make no mistake, this game was no shootout. There were no eye-popping quarterback stats. There were, however, three turnovers, 15 punts, and plenty of incomplete passes (44, to be exact). Just your typical Manning-Brady tilt.
Manning manufactured an 83-yard opening drive that ended with a touchdown pass to Owen Daniels. After that, Manning, along with the rest of the offense, mostly stalled for the rest of the game. He finished the day 17-32 for 176 yards (5.5 yards per attempt), with two touchdowns and a 90.1 passer rating. As for Brady, the immortal? He looked lost and rattled. He looked- how dare I say- old. Denver’s pass rush wreaked havoc on the Patriots’ offensive line, hitting Brady 20 times (!!!), sacking him four times, and forcing two uncharacteristic interceptions. In his defense, his line played like they had been injected with high-dosages of morphine.
Tom Terrific was not so, as he completed 27-56 passes, and in addition to the aforementioned interceptions, twice failed to convert fourth downs inside the red-zone. After a Broncos three-and-out, Brady was given one more drive. On a 4th and 10 from mid-field, he hit the unstoppable Rob Gronkowski for a 40 yard gain. Then on fourth and goal, surrounded by a sea of orange, Brady threw one to the back of the end zone. It was caught, obviously, by that Gronk guy (he finished with eight catches for 144 yards). 20-18. Camera cuts to the sideline showed an uneasy Manning. Brady needed the two point conversion. He dropped back, rolled right, and threw across his body. Tipped, intercepted, and the Broncos had punched their ticket to Super Bowl 50.
The clock hit zero, and the media stormed the field. The two quarterbacks, surrounded by the mess, met in the middle of it. Handshake. Good game. Good luck. And goodbye? If that was it, then bravo. It was truly a privilege watching this rivalry. The two greatest ever. Peyton beat Brady one last time. It couldn’t have ended any other way.
Just nine weeks ago we saw the nightmare at home against Kansas City. We saw Osweiler go 4-2 in his place, beating New England and Cincinnati along the way. We saw the reports of his refusal to serve as Osweiler’s backup. A report of his alleged HGH use. We watched when, in an interview with ESPN’s Lisa Salters, he refuted both of these ludicrous claims. It was the lowest we had ever seen him. The door had seemingly been shut on Peyton Manning. That was until week 17, when, with the number one seed on the line, Gary Kubiak made a call to the bullpen. Door re-opened, welcome back. The fans- the same ones that had showered him with boos just seven weeks earlier- were on their feet. And then we heard something that we were almost certain we wouldn’t hear again.
Omaha! Peyton Manning was back. The Sheriff’s return ignited a Broncos comeback that locked up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Heading into the post-season having secured the number one seed, Gary Kubiak was initially “noncommittal” on his starting quarterback. But come on, we all knew it. It had to be Peyton. He beat Roethlisberger and then he beat Brady. Cam Newton and the Panthers are up next, and they are terrifying. Here we are again. One more shot. The stage is set. All eyes are on Peyton Manning.