The Denver Broncos are advancing to Super Bowl XLVIII.
For the first time since 1998, the Broncos will be playing on the game's biggest stage. Following their 26-16 victory over the New England Patriots, the Broncos demonstrated what will be key to bringing home the Lombardi Trophy in February—their ball-control offense.
The Broncos dominated New England in every facet of the game. There was never a doubt as to which team had control of this game.
Peyton Manning got the doubters and critics off of his back for another two weeks by turning in one of the finest postseason performances of his career. Manning completed 32-of-43 passes for 400 yards and two touchdowns. Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball combined to run for 102 yards on 26 carries to complement Manning in the running game.
The Broncos controlled the game clock for nearly 36 minutes of the game. While Denver's offense was in rhythm all game long, controlling the ball and keeping Tom Brady and the Patriots offense off of the field, New England's offense was never able to gain any sort of consistency.
Through the first 50 minutes of the game, the Patriots scored just three points. Danny Amendola, the receiver who was signed to replace Broncos receiver and former Patriot Wes Welker, had zero catches the entire game.
Hey, why don't we let Denver have Welker. We're good. - Hoodie.— Vic Lombardi (@VicLombardi) January 19, 2014
Though Brady didn't turn the ball over, he struggled to move the chains until late in the fourth quarter when Denver's defense went into prevent mode. Outside of the drive where New England converted on a Stephen Gostkowski field goal in the second quarter, the Patriots moved the football past the Denver 43-yard line just once through the first three quarters.
The running game, like the rest of the Patriots offense, was never able to establish any sort of momentum. New England's running game combined for just 64 yards on 16 carries.
Denver's defense was excellent in the absence of Chris Harris. With Champ Bailey making the shift, yet again, from nickel cornerback to starting cornerback, the Broncos shut down a potent Patriots offense, when Denver's defense could have easily crumbled in adjusting without one of their top defensive players.
There is no doubt that the story of this game will be none other than Manning. Manning was superb in this AFC Championship Game. After the next couple of days, when this victory wears off, the talk will again shift to Manning's legacy based upon whether the Broncos win or lose in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Peyton set Broncos' franchise record for most passing yds in a playoff game with 400. Previous record was Elway's 385 in '89 AFC Champ.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 19, 2014
Having said that, although the talk and chatter will again center around the four-time NFL MVP, the key to winning the Lombardi Trophy two weeks from now won't be Manning. It will be the ball-control offense and the team effort that the Broncos have displayed over their last two postseason games that will determine whether or not the Broncos win their third championship.
Last week, following the Broncos' victory over the San Diego Chargers, I brought up this same viewpoint relating to Denver's chances in the postseason and of winning the Lombardi Trophy. I stated the following:
As deadly of a weapon as Peyton Manning is, and as good as the Broncos' offense has been all season long, the key to winning in the postseason won't be Manning's arm—it will be the execution of the ball-control offense.
With the Super Bowl likely to have a kickoff temperature hovering around 40 degrees, if the Broncos hope to win the Lombardi Trophy in 2014, the offense will have to resemble the one that everybody saw in the 24-17 victory over the Chargers.
Although the 2013 Broncos are a record-breaking offensive unit that averaged 38 points per game, they won't win games in January and February with a shootout-type offense. The Broncos simply won't be able to score that many points versus teams such as the Patriots, 49ers and Seahawks in cold temperatures.
The only way the Broncos reach their goal is if they abide by this game plan: less reliance on Manning and more aid from his supporting cast.
Although Peyton was Denver's player of the game, and he did throw the ball 43 times, the Broncos won with a team effort—the defense shut down one of the best quarterbacks in the game in Brady; they shut down a rushing attack that had gained 234 yards in last week's victory over the Indianapolis Colts.
The Broncos' defense held New England's offense to just 16 points on the day. For all of the talk about New England's offense struggling with the departures and injuries of key receivers such as Welker, Danny Woodhead, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Danny Amendola, New England averaged nearly 28 points per game—the third-highest scoring offense in the NFL.
For the second consecutive week, the Broncos dominated with a ball-control offense—not a shootout-type offense.
Although the 2013 Broncos averaged nearly 38 points per game and broke just about every major offensive record you can think of, they haven't blown teams away in the playoffs with a light-it-up offense. The Broncos have scored 24 and 26 points in each of their playoff contests.
It has taken 15 years for coaches to realize this about Manning and the postseason—just because you have the greatest quarterback of all time lining up under center for you, doesn't mean you're going to win championships by completely relying on him to win you games.
If anything, the exact opposite happens when you place so much reliance on one player, even if he is one of the greatest players of all time. That's been evidenced throughout Manning's career during the postseason.
The 2006 Indianapolis Colts won the only championship of Manning's career by relying on a team effort—the running game was superb, and the defense was borderline dominant.
Indianapolis' defense allowed just 16.3 points per game in the postseason. In two of the four games, the Colts allowed eight points or less to the opposing offense.
In those four games, the Colts' rushing attack, led by Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes, averaged 151 yards per game.
The Colts' defense during the regular season ranked 23rd in the NFL. Their rushing attack was the 18th-best in the NFL.
That 2006 team increased their level of play in the postseason to aid Manning in winning his only championship to date of his NFL career.
The 2013 Broncos are doing the same thing right now—the defense has held both the Chargers and Patriots to an average of 16.5 points per game through two postseason contests. The defense allowed 25 points per game during the regular season, ranking as the 22nd-best defense in the NFL.
If the Broncos wish to bring home the Lombardi Trophy in New Jersey two weeks from now, they will do so by abiding by this philosophy—less reliance on Manning and more aid from his supporting cast.