The Broncos never trailed in their victory over the Patriots. For all 60 minutes of the game, there was little doubt as to which team had control of the game.
The home team controlled the ball for nearly 36 minutes of the game, outran the Patriots on the ground, 102-64, while Peyton Manning won the passing duel versus Tom Brady by throwing for 400 yards in comparison to Brady's 277 yards.
In the fourth postseason game of the Manning-Brady rivalry, it was Peyton who shined brightest.
The four-time NFL MVP completed 32-of-43 passes for two touchdowns and zero turnovers. He led Denver's offense into the red zone on six occasions, with the Broncos coming out with scores on all six drives.
It is the second consecutive time a Manning-led team has defeated a Brady-led team in the conference championship game. The Broncos will play in their seventh Super Bowl, their first since John Elway won the last Lombardi Trophy for the franchise in 1999.
What are eight takeaways from Denver's 26-16 victory over the Patriots?
Technically, the team won the AFC Championship Game.
But let's be blunt: This team wouldn't be where it's at without Peyton Manning.
All week long you heard the same narrative from the media—what will Manning's legacy be if the Broncos lose to the Patriots?
"If Manning loses, does he have any chance of being considered the best quarterback of all time?"
"If Peyton loses, he'll forever be known as a great regular-season quarterback but a postseason choke artist."
These were some of the thoughts thrown out there again and again by the talking heads on television and radio.
Thankfully, that chatter will stop over the next couple of days. Well, until talk shifts about Manning not being able to win "the big one." "The big one" being the Super Bowl.
Manning had 400 yards passing for the third-highest postseason single-game total of his career. He averaged 9.3 yards per pass, wasn't sacked a single time and the Broncos punted just once due to Manning's leadership of Denver's ball-control offense.
This was a big win for Manning against the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady-led Patriots.
Two weeks from now, he'll have the opportunity to hoist the Lombardi Trophy for the second time in his career.
As mentioned in the previous slide, the Broncos punted just one time. They didn't punt a single time in their 24-17 victory over the San Diego Chargers last Sunday.
How were they able to accomplish this?
With a newfound offensive mentality—controlling the game with a ball-control offense.
Denver had two touchdown drives that lasted over seven minutes each, their two longest drives of the season.
The Patriots had just eight offensive drives on the game. They had five in the first half, one of which ended the half. In reality, the Pats had seven drives to move the football.
Through the first half, the Patriots offense had gained just 104 total yards. It wasn't until 7:52 remaining in the third quarter that the offense had the football for the first time in the second half. That drive ended on a turnover on downs, while the Patriots had possession of the football just two more times for the remainder of the game.
Although Manning continues to be prolific with his passing, Denver's offense in the postseason shows very little resemblance to the high-powered one from the regular season. The offense averaged 38 points in the regular season. It is averaging 25 points in the postseason.
Is is clear that coach John Fox has found it beneficial for the Broncos to run a slow and methodical offense that drains the clock and keeps the opposing team's quarterback off the field, rather than the high-powered unit that would score points in quick doses.
If the Broncos wish to end their season with the third championship in franchise history, they will need to continue to abide by this philosophy.
Although the talk and chatter will center around Manning's quest to solidify his legacy with a second Super Bowl championship, the contributions of his supporting cast should not go unnoticed.
When you really think about it, the Broncos have the most talented offense in the NFL. There's a reason why, statistically, they're the greatest offensive unit in NFL history.
Having said that, a lot of credit has to go to Demaryius Thomas after Sunday's performance.
The fourth-year receiver caught seven passes for 134 yards and a touchdown to lead the team in all three categories. This was a week after he led the Broncos in receiving with eight catches for 54 yards and a touchdown.
Although most will credit Manning for Thomas' improvement over the past couple of seasons, it's clear that Thomas would be the leading receiver on any NFL team—remember his 204-yard performance and game-winning touchdown versus the Pittsburgh Steelers two seasons ago in the playoffs with Tim Tebow as his quarterback?
One of the reasons why the Broncos will be playing in the Super Bowl two weeks from now is due to No. 88.
For the second straight week since returning from his concussion injury, Welker didn't have an impressive game from a statistical viewpoint.
In the Broncos' 26-16 victory over the Patriots, Welker had four receptions for 38 yards. This performance was a week after Welker had totaled 38 yards in the victory over the San Diego Chargers in the divisional round.
Welker may not have had an impressive performance, and he may not have been close to being the player of the game, but his value cannot go unnoticed.
Both Demaryius and Julius Thomas were able to have major impact in the passing game due to the presence of Welker. Because of the amount of talent Denver has on offense, combined with the presence of Welker, Demaryius and Julius Thomas both faced single coverage the entire game.
When you take a look at Denver's "Big Four," also featuring Eric Decker, Welker has the least impressive statistics of them all—in 13 games played, Welker had just 778 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns. That is the lowest total in both categories of any of Denver's receivers in the "Big Four."
However, Welker's impact on a game wasn't just noticed on the Broncos' offensive side of the ball—it was noticed on the Patriots' offensive side of the ball.
Danny Amendola, the receiver who was offered a bigger contract by the Patriots than Welker, contributed a total of zero catches during the Patriots' loss.
There was Brady, the two-time NFL MVP and three-time NFL champion struggling to move his offense down the field all game long due to the lack of separation his receivers were drawing.
This was in spite of the injury to Chris Harris and the fact the Broncos were starting the 35-year-old Champ Bailey, who hadn't started a game since Week 13, and had started a total of three games all season long.
Denver's production on offense Sunday, combined with New England's lack of ability to produce on that side of the ball, displayed just how valuable Welker is as an offensive piece.
The Patriots letting Welker walk due to Bill Belichick's stubbornness will forever go down as one of the dumbest moves by an NFL franchise.
The Broncos are going to the Super Bowl.
More impressively, the Broncos are going to the Super Bowl—without several of their best players.
Denver started out the season on a sour note, losing franchise left tackle Ryan Clady to a Lisfranc injury. He was placed on injured reserve following Week 2.
Denver's leader on defense, Von Miller, the runner-up in Defensive Player of the Year voting in 2012, missed the first six games of the season due to suspension. He tore his ACL in Week 16 and was placed on injured reserved soon after.
The Broncos' longest-tenured player, Bailey, played a total of five games during the regular season while struggling through a recurring foot injury.
Chris Harris Jr., one of Denver's top defensive backs, was lost for the season due to injuries suffered following the Broncos' victory over the Chargers last week.
In spite of all that, the Broncos will be making their first Super Bowl appearance since the John Elway era.
The fact that the Broncos will be playing for the Lombardi Trophy without their best offensive lineman, their best defensive player and one of their top two cornerbacks is an indication of just how deep Denver's roster is.
One of the key reasons for why the Broncos have had so much success on defense over the last couple of weeks is due to the play of their defensive lineman.
During the victory over the Patriots, the Broncos sacked Brady twice and forced relentless pressure on key downs. The unit also held the Patriots' running game in check, as it ran for just 64 yards a week after leading the team to victory with 234 rushing yards.
The Broncos have some of the best depth along the defensive line in all of the NFL—Shaun Phillips, Terrance Knighton, Sylvester Williams, Robert Ayers, Jeremy Mincey and Mitch Unrein all contributed along the defensive line in the Broncos' 26-16 victory over the Patriots.
Similar to any player or unit on the Broncos not named Peyton Manning, the defensive line's contributions will go unnoticed by the vast majority of the media, but it definitely won't go unappreciated by the Broncos' fanbase.
All of the talk leading into this game was over how "Peyton Manning can't win the big one." It was more of the same old chatter of "if Manning loses this game, his legacy will forever be solidified as a choke artist."
Now that the Broncos won this game, and Manning shut up his critics for at least another couple of weeks, the talk can now shift to how another team can't seem to win the big one—none other than the New England Patriots.
Following the Broncos' dominating 26-16 victory over their AFC rivals, the Patriots have now completed nine seasons without winning "the big one."
Although the Patriots were underdogs coming into this game, they have now gone many seasons of big postseason games falling flat on their faces. Examples of the Patriots' shortcomings in the postseason?
There was last season in the conference championship game as favorites versus the Baltimore Ravens. The 2011-12 postseason when they lost as favorites to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl. The 2010-11 postseason where New England lost in a huge upset to the New York Jets in the divisional playoffs as the No. 1 seed. The 2009-10 postseason where they fell to the Ravens in the Wild Card Round at home as favorites. The 2007-08 postseason where New England's perfect season came to an end in the Super Bowl versus the underdog Giants.
Remember the 2006-07 AFC Championship Game when the Patriots blew a 21-3 lead versus the Indianapolis Colts, which led to Manning's first and only Super Bowl victory?
For seven of the last eight postseasons, the Patriots have now lost five times as favorites, once with a big lead and the other (and most recent) loss coming at the hands of the Broncos.
I guess the media just doesn't notice these kinds of things—unless it relates to Manning.
The Denver Broncos were supposed to finish the 2012 NFL season as Super Bowl champions.
Well, much like the late-'90s' Broncos Super Bowl-winning teams, sometimes championships take a season longer than most expect.
It's been a year since the Broncos lost to the Baltimore Ravens, 38-35, in double overtime of the divisional round of the playoffs. The Broncos were favored by nearly 10 points entering that game. Denver had home-field advantage in that postseason.
In 1996, the Broncos faced the Jacksonville Jaguars in the divisional round of the playoffs following a dominant 13-3 regular season and a No. 1 seed in the postseason. They fell to the second-year Jaguars, 30-27.
Over the next two seasons, the '97 and '98 Broncos won the Lombardi Trophy.
The Broncos have battled adversity since that painful defeat a year ago. They've battled injuries to key players and have suffered setbacks, including blowing a 24-0 lead versus the Patriots during the regular season, before losing in overtime.
As Mike Klis of The Denver Post stated following the Broncos' victory: "The Broncos not only beat the Patriots, but also they beat back the demons from last year's horrific playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens."
What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger.
The Broncos have embodied that slogan the entire season. Much like the '97 Broncos rebounded from the previous season's loss by winning in the Super Bowl, the '13 Broncos will have that opportunity in Super Bowl XLVIII.