Football AFC Championship
New England tight end Rob Gronkowski (87), defended by, from left, Josh Bush, Shiloh Keo and Aqib Talib, failed to make a catch in Denver’s end zone on a fourth-and-6 late in the fourth quarter.
John G. Mabanglo/European Pressphoto Agency
DENVER — His Broncos teammates came bounding through the tunnel, dispensing hugs and high-fives, and then here came Peyton Manning, shadowed by boom mikes and television cameras and mayhem.
Snaking through the crowd, Manning cast his gaze downward. His lips were pursed. He offered a wave but not a smile, betraying no hint of the game he had just played, the ending he had just witnessed, the accomplishment he had not yet had time to savor.
That would come later, in the interview room, after Denver advanced to the second Super Bowl of Manning’s tenure here by smothering a New England comeback in the waning seconds of a 20-18 victory. His son Marshall hugged his right leg and nibbled on a “Conference Champions” cap.
“You try to do your part and contribute, ” Manning said.
Manning has been battered all season by age and doubt and a creaking body. He relies ever more on his acuity and a microprocessor of a brain than an arm that once tossed thunderbolts.
On Sunday, he contributed by summoning four scoring drives and throwing two lovely touchdown passes to Owen Daniels and playing his second straight game without an interception, then waited to see if that would be enough. He waited to see if, as they had done so many times over the past 15 years, Tom Brady and the Patriots would outdo him.
Face to Face, and Arm to Arm
On Sunday, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning faced off in the N.F.L. playoffs for the fifth time. Here is a summary of those meetings.
The locker room teemed with joy but also vindication. Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said the Broncos felt disrespected by the perception that their secondary could not cover Julian Edelman or Rob Gronkowski, that Brady would shred it.
Overhearing, Aqib Talib said, “Hey, Chris, tell them we beat the champs.”
“We beat the champs twice, ” Harris said.
Nearby, John Elway, the team’s executive vice president for football operations, stood beside a state patrolman who was clutching the A.F.C. championship trophy. Elway praised the defense he had built, the best in the league. It saved the Broncos, he said.
The previous three times Brady had faced the league’s top defense in the playoffs — in 2002 and 2005 against Pittsburgh and last season against Seattle in the Super Bowl — the Patriots won all three, averaging 31 points.
Detonated by the Broncos’ pass rush, which hit him 23 times — 11 more than his previous season high, according to ESPN Stats & Info — Brady completed 27 of 56 passes for 310 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.
He compiled an 18.1 passer rating in the first half, directing an offense so stagnant that the Denver Police Department that a missing persons unit was heading to the stadium to locate the Patriots.Photo
New England quarterback Tom Brady being brought down by linebacker Von Miller (58) and defensive end Malik Jackson during the second half.
Joe Mahoney/Associated Press
“If we could take away that first throw, ” Harris said, “we knew that the dogs were coming.”
The Broncos refined these predatory instincts during the week. Every throw by Brady is seemingly calibrated to a hundredth of an inch, to ensure maximum gains and yards after the catch. Given how quickly he gets rid of the ball, the Broncos determined that they had about two seconds to pressure him.
They pursued Brady with four-man rushes that must have felt like nine-man blitzes. Pressure bore in from the interior, from Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson, whose crushing hit helped to force Brady’s second interception.
“As long as he’s getting up, that means that we didn’t hit him hard enough, ” Jackson said.
Pressure also ravaged Brady from the edge, from Von Miller, who complemented his two and a half sacks with an interception that led to Denver’s second touchdown, and DeMarcus Ware, who chased Brady as feverishly as he has pursued a Super Bowl.
The night before games, Coach Gary Kubiak always asks one player to address the team. It was Ware’s turn Saturday. He pulled out the Broncos’ first Super Bowl trophy and set it on a table.
“I just got really quiet, ” Ware said. “I saw in all the guys’ eyes how they felt, what they felt, because I felt the same way.”
He ended his impassioned speech by telling his teammates, “The Patriots are coming into our house trying to take what we built.”
Jackson said, “We felt his energy.”
The Broncos never trailed, matching their biggest lead on a Brandon McManus field goal with 10 minutes 2 seconds left that put them ahead, 20-12. Brady absorbed hit after pulverizing hit, and his body seemed to groan every time he got up, his passes bounced and soared and tumbled into the Broncos’ hands, and his first two fourth-quarter drives stalled at the Denver 14- and 16-yard lines.
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But Brady is as resilient as Manning. After connecting with Gronkowski on a 4-yard touchdown pass with 12 seconds left — their second fourth-down conversion of the series — the Patriots convened. They needed to go for 2 points because their kicker, Stephen Gostkowski, had chipped an extra point wide right in the first quarter. He had not missed since 2006, his rookie season.
Brady felt good about the play. They had practiced it, but when he dropped back to pass, pressure from the back forced him to throw across his body. Talib swooped in to deflect the ball, and it hung in the air for a second — “I would never use the word ‘scary, ’ but it was an intense moment, ” Talib said — before Bradley Roby intercepted it.
When Shiloh Keo recovered the onside kick, the orange-clad crowd that had made the press box shake and sway with its stamping and shouting erupted once again.