DENVER — Peyton Manning didn’t have to outduel Tom Brady in the AFC championship game Sunday. The Broncos’ defense made sure of that.
Another Manning vs. Brady postseason classic never materialized because the Broncos’ defense stuffed the run, pressured Brady at critical moments and took advantage of his ill-timed inaccuracy.
It amounted to an orange tidal wave that the Broncos rode to a 26-16 victory over the Patriots and a berth in Super Bowl XLVIII.
“Coming in with the two quarterbacks you have in Peyton and Tom Brady, there was all this talk about a shootout and who’s going to play the better game,” Broncos cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said. “So our main thing was just trying to get the ball back to our offense.”
They consistently did, and Manning took advantage. He completed 32 of 43 passes for 400 yards and two touchdowns. His 118.4 passer rating was his fifth-best in 22 career postseason games.
The conference title was especially gratifying for Manning, who sat out the 2011 season following multiple neck surgeries, including a cervical fusion procedure. He celebrated his third career Super Bowl berth by posing for pictures with brothers Eli and Cooper inside a home locker room littered with orange, blue and white confetti.
“I put a lot of hard work in,” Manning said. “I had a lot of people — teammates, coaches, trainers — help me along the way. We’ve definitely come a long way in two years. It’s an exciting feeling.”
The Broncos claimed their first AFC title since they won back-to-back Super Bowls in the 1997 and 1998 seasons. It seemed particularly sweet to players and coaches because of the adversity they have endured.
Coach John Fox missed almost one month after undergoing aortic heart valve replacement surgery on Nov. 4. The Broncos also played Sunday without 10 players who are on the reserve/injured list, including All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady and All-Pro linebacker Von Miller.
“Just standing here feels pretty good because I almost wasn’t,” said Fox, 58, who was the Panthers’ head coach in 2003 when they lost the Super Bowl to the Patriots. “To be able to come back, be on the sideline, be in those meeting rooms, those late-night meetings with the coaches, players, and all the sacrifices that go into these things, it feels outstanding.”
The Patriots lost for the third time in eight AFC championship games under coach Bill Belichick. He and Brady, who have been together since 2000, have not won a Super Bowl since the 2004 season.
“Losing is not easy,” Brady said. “I give them a lot of credit. They are going to be tough to beat in a couple weeks.”
On an unseasonably warm day in the 60s, the Broncos played with the offensive and defensive balance they have discovered this postseason.
Their receiving corps consistently won at the line of scrimmage and separated on the perimeter and down the field. The size, speed, physicality and agility of Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and tight end Julius Thomas were too much for the Patriots’ defenders, especially after top cornerback Aqib Talib left the game in the first half with knee and rib injuries.
Manning threw a 1-yard touchdown to Jacob Tamme in the second quarter and a 3-yarder to Demaryius Thomas in the third.
“They did a good job mixing up plays, and, as always, he did an excellent job of reading the defenses,” Belichick said. “And he got us in some situations that were less than ideal with his astute play-calling and recognition.”
The Broncos are accustomed to such offensive domination under Manning. But on Sunday, their defense matched that output.
In building a 23-3 lead early in the fourth quarter, the Broncos limited the Patriots to 160 total yards. Brady finished 24 of 38 for 277 yards, one touchdown pass and a touchdown run, but he also had some critical misfires.
Late in the first quarter, receiver Julian Edelman got behind the defense on a play-action stretch play to the right, but Brady overthrew him. Then Brady overthrew an open Austin Collie deep down the right sideline in the final 30 seconds of the first half.
Neither team turned the ball over, but the Broncos made enough plays at decisive moments.
Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton sacked Brady on fourth-and-3 from the Broncos’ 29-yard line late in the third with the Broncos up 20-3. His two-handed swim move beat Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins.
And when the Patriots scored their final touchdown and threatened to make it a one-possession game with 3 minutes, 7 seconds remaining, defensive end Shaun Phillips came around the edge unblocked and tackled running back Shane Vareen on the two-point conversion attempt.
“As a defense, we wanted to rise to the occasion,” Terrance Knighton said. “We knew our offense was going to come out and get a rhythm, and we just wanted to do our part.”
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