BRONCOS 26 - PATRIOTS 16
There will be a Manning at MetLife Stadium in two weeks, and his name is not Eli.
Peyton Manning is the name, and Peyton earned his third trip to the Super Bowl leading the Broncos to a dominating 26-16 victory over his arch rival Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship. For Denver, it is their first trip to the big game since the 1998-99 season, when they won Super Bowl XXXIII.
While New England may have closed the game to respectable ten points by the end of the fourth quarter, this game was never really close.
The Broncos dominated every facet of the ball game, particularly on the offensive end, where Manning tore up a battered Patriots secondary. Perhaps helped out by the fact that the Patriots didn't have Aquib Talib for most of the ball game, it didn't seem to matter what the Patriots threw at Manning, he was not going to be denied.
He completed 32 of 43 passes for 400 yards and two touchdowns. He zipped the ball to open receivers when he had them, and even the weakest of thrown balls found their way into the hands of Manning's wide outs. Manning was accurate, and determined. After having to hear all week that he can't beat Brady in the playoffs, and having heard for years that he is not a big game quarterback, Manning's effort stood out from the rest.
With the game scoreless, Manning showed the world how much this game and this moment meant to him. He connected with Demarious Thomas in single coverage on a bomb of a pass down the middle of the field to the Patriots 29. Then he zipped a 19-yard slant with all of his might to Eric Decker to the Patriots 10 for a first and goal. Sure Denver settled for a field goal, but the trend had been set.
The Broncos would score on six consecutive possessions from the first quarter on through the fourth. Denver amassed 507 yards of offense, Sunday, with 27 first downs and a time of possession of nearly 36 minutes. It was a total team effort.
One can make the case that this receiving corps is the best Manning had to work with in his career, and this is guy who used to throw to Hall of Famers like Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, while in Indianapolis.
If Demarious Thomas was open in the middle, Manning found him. If Eric Decker or Wes Welker were even slightly open down the sidelines, Manning found them. If Julius Thomas was paired with a linebacker, Manning put the ball over the top and hit his man.
That was the kind of game Manning and the Broncos had on Sunday.
Before Brady and the Patriots knew it they were down 20-3, after Manning orchestrated an game killing 7:08, 90-yard drive to open the second half. Manning was six of seven on the drive, with assists by Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball who gained a combined 26-yards on the drive to help move the chains.
After Ball gutted out a third and three conversion for a first down and goal, Manning found Demarious Thomas in the end zone for the touchdown to make it 20-3. The game was now heading toward a route, and anyone watching this game knew it.
The panic was obvious on the face of Brady, who just couldn't get on the same page with his wide receivers. The clock was ticking and there was nothing he could do about it.
It was going to be tough sledding for Brady to do anything with a receiving corps of Julian Edleman, and Danny Amendola -- guys who don't exactly remind anyone of Randy Moss and Welker. Not to mention Brady badly missed Rob Gronkowski on this day. The lack of depth at wide receiver was apparent all afternoon.
Somehow Brady was able to guide the Patriots to the Broncos 29-yard line, but he couldn't finish it off. On third and three, Brady couldn't complete a pass to full back Shane Vereen, setting up a desperation fourth and three. The Patriots had no choice but to go for it, and the Broncos were ready. Denver switched into a nickel defense, and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton shot the gap and sacked Brady for a 10-yard loss.
The AFC Championship Game for all intents and purposes was over.
Manning completed passes of 14-yards to Julius Thomas and 30-yards to Demarious Thomas to set up another Matt Prater field goal to make it 23-3.
Give credit where it is due. The Broncos earned this trip to Super Bowl XLVIII, and with Manning now set to cement his legacy as one of the greatest ever - it sets up a compelling storyline for the New York stage. Welcome to New Jersey, Peyton!