It looked like the game was destined for overtime when Tom Brady threw his first touchdown of the game with 12 seconds left to Rob Gronkowski on fourth down.
With the Denver Broncos up 20-18, the New England Patriots were a two-point conversion away from the tie, but the Broncos’ defense pressured Brady and forced an interception to seal the game.
The story of the game was the physicality of the Denver defense, which knocked Brady down a total of 23 times, more than any quarterback in the league all season. Brady struggled all day because of the Broncos’ pass rush, finishing 27-for-56 with 310 yards and two interceptions. His tough day continued in the fourth quarter when the Patriots had the ball in Broncos territory twice and failed to come away with any points, turning the ball over on downs in the red zone both times.
Von Miller was the defensive star for the Broncos, accumulating 2½ sacks and an interception on the day, while also consistently hitting Brady all game.
Even with the offensive struggles, New England had their chances including a recovered fumble in the first quarter that set up the potential tying touchdown. Steven Jackson reached the end zone two plays later, but Stephen Gostkowki missed the extra point, something he hadn’t done all season. The miscue felt inconsequential at the time, but looking back was likely the reason the game didn’t go to overtime.
“All day, these guys put their bodies and lives on the line, and for me to come out here and miss a kick, it’s a nightmare scenario,” Gostkowski said to the media after the game.
Still, Brady showed signs of life on the Patriots’ final possession when their backs were against the wall. On 4th and 10 Brady hit tight end Rob Gronkowski for 40 yards with over a minute to go to set up 1st and goal. Four plays later, again on 4th down, Gronkowski caught a ball in the back of the end zone that gave the Patriots life with 12 seconds left. The magic would end there. On the two-point conversion attempt to tie the game Bradley Roby intercepted the pass to clinch the victory for the Broncos and cap off a great performance by the defense.
On the other side, Peyton Manning had a vintage first half with two touchdown passes to Owen Daniels which allowed Denver to play with the lead for over 53 minutes. In the third quarter Manning even managed to run for a 12-yard gain on 3rd and 10, his longest postseason rush since January of 2000. This performance was easily Manning’s best of the season, but even Manning knew who the heroes of the game were.
“The defense knew they were challenged all week and they answered the challenge. I’ve really enjoyed playing with that defense all season and I’m glad I didn’t have to face them,” Manning said in his postgame press conference.
Manning and the offense put up 17 points in the first half to give them an eight point halftime lead. They stalled in the second half due to an impressive performance by New England’s defense, only putting three more points on the board. However, 20 points is all the Broncos’ defense needed for the second week in a row, holding the high-scoring Patriots offense to just 18 points, and sending the Denver Broncos to the Super Bowl.
The toughest challenge for the Broncos defense comes in two weeks when they play likely MVP Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50.