Just as the NFC Championship game would, the AFC Championship featured one of the biggest rivalries in all of football: Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady.
On one side, Tom Brady, the greatest Super Bowl quarterback of this generation. With three Super Bowl rings and a 10-4 record against Peyton Manning, many expected the big game quarterback to lead the Pats to their sixth Super Bowl under Bill Belichick.
On the other side, Peyton Manning, arguably the greatest quarterback the sport has ever seen, coming off unarguably the best season a quarterback has ever had. Of course, he’s only 10-11 in the playoffs in his career, including two losses to the Pats. On the other hand, Peyton defeated Brady the last time he met him in the playoffs, en route to his lone Super Bowl win.
As it would turn out, the playoff-test New England Patriots had few highlights while the Denver Broncos highlights came early and often.
Denver forced a three-and-out on New England’s first drive. Peyton Manning took over and quickly ran off seven plays for 37 yards but the Pats defense was able to slow them down at midfield and force a punt from their own 48.
Tom Brady took over but Denver’s banged up defense, missing Von Miller and Chris Harris among others, held up again and forced a second straight three-and-out.
After a solid drive that failed to convert to points, Peyton was right back at it, completing a 29-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas and a 19-yard pass to Eric Decker as he marched 72 yards. The Patriots secondary held up, however, and an obvious pass interference by the Pats went uncalled, as they were able to hold that drive to just a field goal. Denver 3, New England 0.
After two straight three-and-outs, Brady looked like himself on the next drive as he connected with Julian Edelman, Shane Vereen, and Austin Collie orchestrating a 41-yard drive but the Broncos pulled off another strong defensive stand and forced the Patriots’ third punt in as many possessions.
Ryan Allen’s punt pinned the Broncos back to their own seven-yard line. That didn’t stop Manning, though, as he orchestrated an impressive seven-minute, 15-play, 93-yard drive that was capped off by a touchdown throw to Jacob Tamme to put Denver up by two scores. Denver 10, New England 0.
That sparked something in Brady as he quickly connected with Aaron Dobson for a 28-yard pass on the first play of the next drive. He led a nine-play, 51-yard drive to the Denver 18 but was sacked for a loss of 11 by Robert Ayers on a third-down as the Broncos held the Pats to a field goal. Denver 10, New England 3.
With just two minutes left in the half, Peyton quickly connected on a 26-yard pass to Demaryius and then another 27-yard strike to his top receiver. He was able to quickly march off 63 yards on seven plays but the Pats held them to a 4th-and-1 at their 17 to hold Denver to another field goal heading into halftime. Denver 13, New England 3.
Through the first half, the matchup wasn’t even as close as the score as Tom Brady completed just nine of 15 passes for 114 yards while the Pats ran the ball eight times for a mere 16 yards. On the flip side, Manning completed 18 of 25 passes for 214 yards and a score while the team ran the ball 13 times for 56 yards.
Manning got the ball back on the first possession of the third quarter and was flat out dominant as he converted first down after first down, marching down the field on a seven-minute, 80-yard drive. Denver leaned on their run game plenty as they ran 13 plays on the drive before capping it off with a three-yard touchdown toss to Demaryius Thomas. Denver 20, New England 3.
Brady was finally the quarterback we’ve seen every postseason on the next drive, marching 51 yards on 12 plays but was stopped at the Denver 29 for a 4th-and-2. Down by three scores, the Pats opted to go for it. Terrance Knighton broke through the line on the snap and quickly sacked Brady for a huge takeaway.
Manning was locked in as he took over again. Peyton completed a 30-yard bomb to Demaryius en route a nine-play, 60-yard drive that took more than five minutes off the board. The Pats were able to hold them off inside their own five but the Broncos put another Matt Prater trey on the board and left New England just 12 minutes to attempt a 20-point comeback. Denver 23, New England 3.
This time, Brady was able to finish. He wasted no time completing two 20-yard passes, one to Michael Hoomanawanui and one to Austin Collie, to spark an 80-yard drive that was capped off by a seven-yard touchdown pass to Julian Edelman. The Pats were finally alive in the game, and took less than three minutes to score, but they’d need to stop Peyton Manning for the first time since the first quarter to try to get back into it with less than 10 minutes remaining. Denver 23, New England 10.
That’s easier said than done as they allowed Peyton to complete a 37-yard pass to Julius Thomas just two plays later. The Pats were able to stop them on the next set of downs but the Broncos sent Matt Prater out to nail the 54-yard try and put them up by 16. Denver 26, New England, 10.
In full catchup mode, Brady does what he does best as he guided a 10-play, 80-yard drive that took less than four minutes. He completed pass after pass to Julian Edelman before running the ball into the endzone himself. Down by nine points, though, they were forced to go for the 2-point conversion. Rather than use LeGarrette Blount, who scored four touchdowns last week, they ran up the middle with Shane Vereen who was stuffed short of the goal line, effectively ending the game with just three minutes left. Denver 26, New England 16.
The Patriots attempted an onside kick but Eric Decker was able to grab it to officially seal the win.
The Denver Broncos win the AFC Championship 26-16 and will face the winner of the NFC Championship game in two weeks in New York. Well, New Jersey, really, but whatever.