DENVER — The fight for a legacy, the push for Peyton Manning to gain postseason cred, may have actually started some hours earlier in a Denver Broncos team meeting. The meeting set the tone for Denver's impressive win over the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, launching them to the Super Bowl not with a fusion-powered offense, but with a punch to the mouth. That same approach will make the Broncos the favorites to win it all.
The speaker was Wes Welker, who made his bones in New England. Welker spoke about rare opportunities and finishing. Super Bowls are gifts, Welker said. When one is there for the taking, you grab it, you fight for it. Welker knew this firsthand. He had a crucial drop in the Patriots' Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants after the 2011 season.
Fast-forward to the first quarter of the AFC title game and Welker, in the middle of the field, running full steam at a defenseless and unaware Aqib Talib. It was a classic pick play and Welker smashed into Talib, with Talib crumbling to the ground instantly. The hit was Hines Ward-ian in its sneaky viciousness. Welker said the hit was not intentional, but it certainly looked as if Welker was on a mission to obliterate Talib. Mission accomplished.
(Via Jason McIntyre of The Big Lead)
That was one nasty play of many in the Broncos' 26-16 win over New England for the AFC championship. And that word, nasty, is used as a compliment. It was Denver's physicality, adaptability and aggressive play-calling that won them the game. Those same qualities will make them almost impossible to beat in Super Bowl XLVIII. Yes, almost impossible.
At the end of the game, with the Broncos crowd chanting "Su-per Bowl," Manning met Tom Brady at midfield. They exchanged a quick handshake and then Manning smiled. He smiled because he won. He smiled because this team is the best in football. There's no question about that now.
Manning also hugged John Elway, one of the best quarterbacks of all time, and now Denver's general manager. It wasn't an over-the-top congratulations, since both men knew there was one more game to go.
"We know we're not done yet," said Broncos defensive lineman Terrance Knighton.
The trip to the Super Bowl almost erases what's been a traumatic year for the Broncos. Their coach missed a chunk of the season with a heart procedure. A key player was suspended. There were the front office DUIs and Faxgate. That was all gone as the confetti fell and the fans started singing "New York, New York."
The Broncos don't just have Manning now. They also possess a newfound sense of physicality. Welker's hit on Talib symbolized the day for Denver. They played with meanness, toughness and unbridled aggression. They played, as Lawrence Taylor might say, like a bunch of crazed dogs.
When asked if this was the most physical game the Broncos played all year, Knighton said, "Yeah, it was pretty physical."
"We heard all week about the Patriots and how they were going to run all over us," said Knighton. "We were tired of hearing that."
While the pretty-boy quarterbacks dominated the headlines coming into the contest, in actuality, an NFC West game broke out at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. This was not pretty football; it was beautifully violent. It wasn't a chess game. It was Muay Thai.
Manning beat Brady. That is huge. That is the sexiness. But the biggest takeaway from this game, and why the Broncos will be almost impossible to beat, was the display of physicality. The metamorphosis from this high-scoring supersonic jet to knocking players out was the difference.
If the Broncos can morph at will and go from high-flying to ground-and-pound—and have that defense punch people in the mouth—no one is beating them. No one.
The only time the Patriots moved the ball effortlessly was when Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio went to a non-physical, prevent defense that was neither preventing nor defending.
It's rare to see the Patriots dominated on both sides of the football in a huge playoff game. This stunning statistic says a great deal: It was New England's eighth title game in the Brady/Bill Belichick era, and they had never trailed at halftime…until this day. Manning also threw for 400 yards for the first time against a Belichick defense. He was able to do so not because of his usual accuracy, but because he rarely felt a hint of a pass rush.
Some of the Patriots' receivers started to get alligator arms due to the hard hitting. On one play, Danny Amendola looked away from a football in flight because he saw a Denver defender locking on. The pass fell incomplete.
Late in the third quarter, New England running back Shane Vereen dropped a pass after being sandwiched by two Broncos players. There were hits and blocks like this all afternoon by Denver.
The Patriots offensive line was embarrassed. This was symbolized late in the second half, with New England trailing 20-3 and threatening in Denver territory. Knighton, on fourth down, beat Logan Mankins and sacked Brady. That was essentially the game. Almost no one manhandles Mankins like that. Except a dude named Pot Roast.
The physicality of the Broncos made it seem like New England didn't even belong on the same field. There was no New England pass rush. No pass protection of Brady. The Patriots secondary, after losing Talib, got picked apart. It was that bad.
The much-mentioned quarterback battle wasn't a battle at all. Brady was off. Way off. He overthrew two receivers wide open for touchdowns, and overall the touch wasn't there (I counted four total overthrown). Brady was playing with house money because no one expected one of the youngest and most injured teams in football to reach this point.
Still, we are used to seeing Brady outplay Manning. We are used to Brady playing with that naked aggression and Manning shrinking. Brady was instead rattled. Yes, I used the "R" word. He was nervous because he was getting hit more than we've maybe ever seen him hit in a big game. This time, on this day, Manning was the bad ass. Manning was Riddick and Brady a merc.
In the third quarter, a period the Patriots dominated the last time these two teams met, Manning went 9-of-10 for 95 yards and a score. The Broncos scored on six straight drives to end the game.
After the Patriots scored and made it 23-10, the Broncos remained aggressive, throwing the football deep. They threw the ball again with three minutes left in the game and up by 10. These plays suited Denver's new, mean personality.
I've said this before, and you saw it in this game. Through all the remarkable numbers, through all of the records, through all of the incredible statistics, there was something different about Manning this season. Particularly when the playoffs started. The pitch man, the statistician, got nastier. More cutthroat.
On this day, Manning became Brady, and Brady became Manning.
After the game, Denver's locker room was happy but subdued. Happy to win but also cognizant of a job unfinished. Moderate joy is the phrase one assistant coach used with me. That is a good thing, a realization of what's left.
Welker dressed in blue jeans and a fuchsia T-shirt after the game, looking like a kid in a Gap commercial instead of a key to the win. Coach John Fox approached Welker on Friday about speaking to the team, and Welker happily accepted. Welker thought he would be back to the Super Bowl after that loss to the Giants. And back again. And back again.
"Wes had a chip on his shoulder going against his old team," said Knighton. "That speech he gave us was incredible. It set the tone, I think."
"You never know when you'll get to another one," said Welker of the Super Bowl. "I wanted to make sure they understood that."
The Broncos are not only back, but they are also a different group, a mean group.
Nasty and mean.
And that's a good thing.