DENVER — After Tom Brady threw his second interception, the kind of unforgivable pass any other quarterback would get crucified for throwing, he went to his spot on the bench. Then, a few feet away, Julian Edelman took off his own helmet and threw it. With four minutes left in the second quarter, the frustration had officially set in.
It's rare to see the best quarterback of all time play like Tim Tebow, but that's what happened in the first half of Sunday's AFC Championship Game thanks to a speedy, ferocious and splendidly nasty Denver defense.
Brady vs. Manning? The much-hyped, much-discussed, much-dissected storyline never came to fruition.
Instead, this game was about Denver's defense, which was the biggest reason the Broncos beat New England, 20-18, and are going to the Super Bowl.
It was almost all about Denver's defense. What the Broncos did will go down as one of the best title-game defensive performances we've ever seen. That is not an exaggeration.
It is rare to see Brady rattled. The only time it happens tends to be when defenses get pressure up the middle, get in Brady's face and create ghosts in his head. The Broncos did that and then some. They were able to get pressure on Brady from the inside, the outside, from low orbit, from everywhere.
And the effects of that pressure were palpable. Brady looked totally out of sync. He was nervous and it showed, especially in the first half. Brady's first-half passer rating was 18.1. It was his lowest first-half passer rating since 2005, a span of 172 games.
Why people like me were so wr-wr-wr-wrong in predicting this game is because entering it, Brady was on such a hot streak. He had picked apart a solid Kansas City defense in the divisional round. It was difficult to see a Broncos defense totally and completely discombobulating him, but that's exactly what happened.
What Von Miller did to that New England offensive line is a misdemeanor in some states. His 2.5 sacks set a team playoff record. After one, he grabbed his junk, Marshawn Lynch-style. Hell, after that performance, he can grab whatever he damn well pleases.
This game was surprisingly entertaining, despite the quarterbacks not being major positive factors. It was fun to watch and, in some ways, mesmerizing. Borderline orgasmic. The NFL has become so offense-oriented—almost grotesquely so—that low-scoring, hard-hitting defensive battles have become tar-pitted. A game like this, in some ways, turns football on its head. And that's a good thing.
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What the Broncos did late in the fourth quarter was symbolic of their dominance. The Patriots had 4th-and-1 on the Denver 16, trailing 20-12, and Bill Belichick decided to go for it. The pass went to Julian Edelman in the open field, where he is almost impossible to stop. Well, the Broncos stopped him.
Then, incredibly, Denver's defense did it again. It was another fourth down, this time at the Denver 14, and Brady went to the back of the end zone for Gronkowski and the pass fell incomplete. So, to recap, two fourth-down red-zone stops of Tom Freaking Brady.
But wait, there's more. As if Denver's defense hadn't proved its brilliance enough, Brady would get one more shot. The Patriots got the ball back, trailing 20-12, with 1:52 left.
Brady and Gronkowski prevailed on fourth down this time, converting a 4th-and-10 and moving the football back into the red zone—yet again. It was fourth down—yet again. Brady and Gronkowski converted—again—this time for a touchdown. Had the Broncos' defense finally cracked? No. On the two-point try, the defense stood tall again, stopping the Patriots.
Those three stands will go down as some of best in AFC Championship Game history.
"I know we played great defense all day long," said Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak.
"They knew they were challenged all week and they answered the challenge," said Manning of his defense.
After the game, kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who had missed an extra point in the first quarter, classily took the blame for the loss. But he can't block for Brady.
Yeah, I was wrong. A lot of us were wrong. This Broncos defense is historic. That's why they won. Not because of the quarterback. Or the quarterbacks.
When a defense stops the best quarterback of all time on multiple occasions in the red zone with the game on the line, well, that puts you up there with the best.
"You're talking about the Patriots," said Miller. "We had to dig deep the whole game."
The Broncos continue to be Brady's kryptonite. Brady is 2-7 in Denver. He's 192-53 everywhere else.
As the Denver players took the stage, confetti still falling and jubilation still palpable, the Broncos all took their bows. The owner's wife. The general manager. The head coach. The quarterback.
The defense was there, too. Not at the front, but the core of the team nonetheless. It's fitting that on Saturday night, linebacker DeMarcus Ware gave a powerful speech to the team, saying how rare these opportunities were and how the team needed to follow up on the team motto: "Iron sharpens iron."
As part of his speech, he pulled out the first Super Bowl trophy the Broncos won. Everyone's eyes lit up. The entire team was fired up, but it's clear the defense was especially ready.
ESPN Stats & Info tweeted that Brady had not been hit more than 12 times in a game this season. The Broncos hit him 23 times on Sunday. Stats & Info also reported this game was the first time in Brady's career that he completed less than half of his passes and threw multiple interceptions in a game.
As he headed to the locker room, Broncos defensive back T.J. Ward told reporters, "I can't wait to get on TV and talk s--t."
Talk it. Go ahead. Talk it and talk it and talk it some more. You deserve to, because so many of us underestimated your team.
The Broncos and Patriots were all on the field, but the Denver defense stole the show. Not Brady. Not Manning.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.
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