Almost no one gave the Denver Broncos a chance to beat the New England Patriots in Sunday's AFC Championship Game, but Peyton Manning and a furious defense pulled off the improbable against Tom Brady's squad.
In perhaps the last chapter of the Manning-vs.-Brady rivalry, the Broncos punched their ticket to Super Bowl 50 with a 20-18 victory in the Mile High City.
The Broncos will take on the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 after Cam Newton and Co. trounced the Arizona Cardinals 49-15 in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday.
Here's a look at the highlights of the thrilling game in Denver, courtesy of NFL.com:
Manning struggled with foot and rib injuries throughout the regular season, and the team even benched him in favor of Brock Osweiler in November.
After Osweiler faltered in Week 17 against the San Diego Chargers, Manning returned to the field and led Denver to a victory in the regular-season finale and a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Brady Under Duress
On Sunday, Manning threw for just 176 yards, but he did throw two touchdown passes with no interceptions. While that stat line is a far cry from what we've grown accustomed to seeing from Manning in his career, it was all Denver needed.
The Broncos defense put on a performance for the ages. DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller and others shredded the Pats' makeshift offensive line.
Brady had almost no time to find open receivers as Denver sacked him four times, hit him 20 times and picked him off twice, per ESPN.com.
The constant pressure produced this un-Brady-like stat line: 27-of-56, 310 YDS, 1 TD, 2 INT. New England established nothing on the ground, as Brady was the team's leading rusher with 13 yards on three carries.
Even with the lopsided statistics, the Patriots had their chances.
Trailing 20-12 with one minute and 34 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Brady connected with tight end Rob Gronkowski on a 40-yard pass to the Broncos' 10-yard line on 4th-and-10. Brady found Gronk again in the end zone with 12 seconds remaining on 4th-and-goal.
The Pats needed to go for the two-point conversion to force overtime, but Denver deflected Brady's desperation pass to Julian Edelman, and Bradley Roby picked it off.
The Broncos recovered the ensuing onside kick and ran out the remaining time to cement the win.
A missed extra point by the usually dependable Stephen Gostkowski in the first quarter came back to haunt the Pats. While Gostkowski made two field goals in the game, his missed point-after attempt forced the Patriots to go for two late in the game.
In a postgame interview, per SportsCenter, Gostkowski expressed his regret:
"I just feel awful about it... It's a sickening feeling." Stephen Gostkowski owns his missed extra point. https://t.co/DQcvbKGK9A— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 25, 2016
New England had several opportunities to regain control of the game after Gostkowski's miss, but the Pats offense couldn't slow down the pass rush on Brady. Missed kick or not, the Broncos proved to be the better team.
Defense Wins Championships
Super Bowl 50 looks as though it will be a low-scoring game. Per ESPN Stats & Info, the Broncos and Panthers ranked No. 1 and 2 in defensive efficiency this year:
Broncos & Panthers rank 1st and 2nd in defensive efficiency. They were the top 2 teams in that statistic the last 9 weeks of regular season.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 25, 2016
With this dynamic, the key to winning it all will be taking care of the football.
If Manning has another efficient performance and his defense plays at a high level again, the Broncos might be set to win the franchise's third Super Bowl.