Tom Brady and Peyton Manning went against each other for the 17th time during Sunday's AFC Championship Game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, and an unusual result unfolded.
Manning and the Denver Broncos knocked off the New England Patriots 20-18 to secure a berth in Super Bowl 50 and thwart the Patriots' efforts to defend their championship. The victorious quarterback improved his record to 6-11 against his legendary counterpart and largely outplayed him.
Brady didn't go out without a fight, driving the Patriots into the red zone on three late possessions and throwing a fourth-down touchdown to tight end Rob Gronkowski with 12 seconds left for the final points of the game. On the subsequent two-point conversion attempt, cornerback Aqib Talib tipped Brady's pass intended for Julian Edelman, and Bradley Roby picked it off.
Given the final margin, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick may regret not kicking a field goal on his team's preceding two trips to Denver's side of the field.
ESPN's Bomani Jones was among those critical of Belichick's aggressive tactics down the stretch:
A number of notable Twitter reactors took the time to add both humorous and insightful flair to what was a thrilling battle for the AFC crown.
Bleacher Report's Dan Carson took care of the "Crying Jordan" meme honors in poking fun at Brady:
Paul Zeise of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette passed along another shot at Brady—as if he didn't take enough Sunday—cleverly utilizing Manning's frequent cadence city of choice:
Veteran tight end Benjamin Watson had a nicely bullet-pointed summary of what went down:
Oakland Raiders captain Justin Tuck revealed the visions of grandeur he has in discussing Brady's greatness:
The final New England drive was vintage Brady in the clutch and featured a 40-yard reception by Gronkowski on 4th-and-10 at the 50-yard line to put the Patriots in position to tie the game.
Amid the biggest moments of Sunday's clash, the theme was Denver standing tall against Brady and the reigning Super Bowl champions. But the high-stakes affair required Manning to beat New England with his arm, which he did.
After throwing just one touchdown pass at home all season, the 39-year-old completed four of his six throws on Denver's opening drive, including a 21-yard touchdown strike to tight end Owen Daniels. The Cauldron showed the blown coverage that led to Daniels' trip to paydirt:
That 11-play, 83-yard march came in the midst of Denver's elite defense stymieing Brady and Co. during the opening quarter. The NFL on ESPN highlighted how effective the Broncos were to start:
The only thing to hinder the tremendous early efforts of the Denver defense was a bizarre play toward the end of the first quarter. Manning tried to get the ball in the flat to running back Ronnie Hillman and unfortunately threw it backward, allowing the Pats to successfully challenge what was ruled an incompletion.
A 20-yard catch-and-run by Brandon Bolden and a one-yard plunge by Steven Jackson later, New England had answered with a touchdown of its own. But Stephen Gostkowski missed his first extra point in 524 attempts, according to NFL on ESPN, which kept the score stuck at 7-6.
NFL Network's Jeff Darlington added more context to the critical Gostkowski gaffe:
Indianapolis Colts star Robert Mathis detected some irony about the situation:
Busted Coverage depicted NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as the cackling, villainous mastermind behind the change to gridiron SOPs:
Following a Von Miller interception of Brady on New England's ensuing possession, Denver's Manning-Daniels duo struck again.
Daniels beat Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins for 12 yards on a 3rd-and-6 stop-and-go route, catching a beautifully thrown ball in the end zone as the lead swelled to 14-6 following Brandon McManus' extra point at the 13-minute, 46-second mark of the second quarter.
ESPN Stats & Info illustrated how much of an uphill battle it was going to be for the Pats to win on the road thereafter despite facing only a one-score deficit at the time:
Gostkowski redeemed himself on the subsequent possession with a 46-yard field goal—thanks in part to a third-down 11-yard scramble by Brady—but the Broncos were clearly outplaying the visitors for much of the opening half. McManus booted a 52-yarder through the uprights with just 33 seconds remaining in the first half to make it an eight-point game at the break.
Amid a half in which the Broncos defense picked Brady off twice and mostly prevented him from executing the offense he's accustomed to, ESPN.com's Mike Reiss highlighted Denver's effective schematic strategy:
The Broncos' combination of a stupendous secondary and their pass-rushing personnel to exploit a patchwork Pats offensive line made life difficult for Brady. Per SportsCenter, Sunday was only the second time in Brady's career that the four-time Super Bowl champion threw two interceptions in a half during the postseason.
Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders nevertheless preferred the Pats to prosper or fall with their field general slinging the pigskin rather than bothering with the running game:
The only highlight of the third quarter was a New England field goal set up by another Gronk special, as he hauled in a pass and ran the rest of the way for a gain of 31.
Running back C.J. Anderson's 30-yard dash into Patriots territory positioned McManus for another field goal, though Manning could have put a deeper dent in New England's comeback hopes when he just missed receiver Jordan Norwood, as NFL on CBS captured:
Both QBs were under siege constantly. Brady was sacked four times—Miller had 2.5 sacks—and hit relentlessly, while Manning was sacked thrice and took numerous shots in the pocket. Sara Walsh of ESPN showed how much of a pummeling Brady took:
Per ESPN's Rich Cimini, Brady was 2-of-15 passing for three yards with one touchdown and an INT against pressure.
To get an even better grasp on how Super Bowl-worthy Denver was Sunday, it held Brady's unit on 13 of 15 third-down opportunities. That proved pivotal to the outcome.
Now, Denver must focus on the next task at hand: Super Bowl 50. The Broncos will face either the Carolina Panthers or the Arizona Cardinals on Feb. 7 at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California.
Whatever the longer-term future holds for Denver, the team does have a magnificent defense and a savvy run-oriented play-caller in head coach Gary Kubiak, who's headed to the Super Bowl in his maiden year at the helm.
The big question mark is under center, where Manning may be done after the impending contest for the Lombardi Trophy. His potential successor, Brock Osweiler, is a free agent and doesn't have a large sample size to judge him on.
New England was playing in its fifth consecutive AFC title game. Not only were the men protecting Brady banged up, but he was also working without his top two running backs and simply faced too strong of an opponent to guide the Pats back to the Super Bowl.
As long as Belichick and Brady are in place, though, New England figures to be a constant factor in the annual championship picture.
Brady credited the Broncos for never truly allowing his side to gain leverage, saying, per NFL Network's Kimberly Jones, "We never could play with the lead, we never could play on our terms, uphill battle all day."
As for the blundered PAT that ultimately changed the complexion of the entire game, Brady wasn't too critical of Gostkowski.
"He's a great player. He's the best. Everyone misses them at some point. There was plenty of football left." said Brady, per CSNNE.com's Phil Perry.
Gostkowski wasn't as kind to himself, saying, per the Boston Globe's Michael Whitmer: "I feel like I lost the game. I feel sorry for myself, but I don't expect people to feel sorry for me."
Denver cornerbacks Chris Harris Jr. and Talib gloated afterward about how well they played against the Brady-led Patriots, per James Palmer of NFL Network:
In addition to savoring the win, Manning paid respect to Brady when he met with the media.
"It was a sweet victory," said Manning, per WEEI's Ryan Hannable. Manning added, per NFL Network, "I have great respect for Tom [Brady] as a player, as a friend, [and] for the job he's done as a QB for that franchise."
Resorting to rare candor to describe what happened, Belichick spoke about the loss and said of the Broncos, per Jones, "They played a little better than we did...a crash landing to the end of the season."