The seventeenth and possibly final matchup between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning could be the best one. In a thrilling and epic battle, the Broncos, huge underdogs coming into the game, escaped with a 20-18 victory, sending them to their eighth Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. But this game wasn’t a battle between Brady and Manning, the two greatest quarterbacks of their generation. The fight that determined the AFC representative in Super Bowl 50 was between the best quarterback in football, Brady, and the best defense in football, the stingy unit of Denver.
Early on, Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense looked potent, even without production from the running game. Manning masterfully picked apart the New England defense on his first drive and completed a 21-yard touchdown pass to tight end Owen Daniels. After a lateral pass by Manning was recovered by New England, Brady and the Patriots scored their first touchdown, but New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed the 39-yard extra point attempt, his first miss on a PAT all season. It would prove to be a costly mistake.
The Patriots made more mistakes in the second quarter. Linebacker Von Miller intercepted a Brady pass early in the quarter and, three plays later, Manning capitalized with another touchdown pass to Owen Daniels to put the Broncos up 14-6. Heading into halftime, the Broncos held a 17-9 advantage in a defensive battle.
In the second half, the game shifted from Brady-Manning to Brady-Broncos. Denver, the only team with a winning record against Brady in history, put him under tremendous pressure. While the Broncos’ offense remained stagnant, only managing a field goal and 82 yards in the second half, Denver was on attack mode on defense. Miller wreaked havoc on the reshuffled New England offensive line and racked up 2.5 sacks. In the secondary, the Broncos took away each of Brady’s favorite targets- Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, and Danny Amendola. Denver shut down New England on 3rd down conversions (13.3% conversion rate) and stopped the Patriots on fourth down twice in the last quarter.
With less than two minutes remaining, the Patriot offense took over at midfield. Denver, suffering multiple injuries in the secondary, forced three incompletions and a 4th and 10 attempt that could end the game. Brady fired a bullet to tight end Rob Gronkowski that Gronk took down to the 10-yard line, a 40-yard completion. Denver held New England, setting up the defining 4th and goal on the 4-yard line. The Broncos sent pressure at Brady, who stayed cool in the pocket and heaved up a pass in the direction of Gronkowski. Gronk jumped in front of two Denver defenders and reeled in the pass in the end zone. That score brought the Patriots within two points of tying the Broncos, 20-18.
If Gostkowski hadn’t missed the extra point in the first quarter, the Patriots would only need a nearly automatic PAT kick to tie the game. Instead, New England needed a two-point play just to send the game to overtime. Brady, on the run, threw a pass to the middle of the field and the ball was tipped up. Corner Bradley Roby caught the interception and the Patriots couldn’t recover the onside kick attempt, clinching the victory.
No matchup in the Brady-Manning series was more dramatic than this one. Unlike the others, when Brady and Manning would take turns carving up defenses, this game was decided on the field at the same time. This game perfectly sums up this championship-bound squad- Peyton Manning doesn’t turn the ball over and the defense dominates.
In two weeks, the Broncos face a much tougher task- Super Bowl 50. This could be Peyton Manning’s last game, a chance to silence critics of Manning’s postseason record and send him off into the sunset, like John Elway once did. The game could also be redemption for the Broncos’ embarrassing 43-8 defeat in Super Bowl XLVIII and validation for Denver as one of the greatest defenses of all-time.
Inevitably, Denver will enter the Super Bowl as massive underdogs and a possible blowout victim. That won’t shake them. In two weeks, Peyton Manning and the Broncos will have a chance at a perfect storybook ending to the season and to a phenomenal career.