In a tense, suffocating contest on Sunday, the Denver Broncos defeated the New England Patriots 20–18 to win the AFC Championship and claim a ticket to Super Bowl 50. Before kickoff, the game was billed as the latest legacy tussle between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, two very old, very successful quarterbacks who have met in the conference championship four times and led their teams to appearances in six of the past 10 Super Bowls. But in their 17th meeting, the duo had little time to add new sets of heroics to their rivalry; most of their energies were invested, instead, in trying to keep upright.
That’s especially true of Brady, whose toddlerlike helplessness in the face of Denver’s defense was the story of the game. Granted, that defense is the best in the league, but the surprise was just how swarming, ominous, and omnipresent the Broncos’ pass rush was, with players like Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware forcing Brady into all sorts of awkward dances, lunges, and tumbles in the backfield. There are quite a few fancy stats that quantify just how much pressure Brady was under, but this about sums it up:
Suffice to say this was not the gunslinging showdown of past Brady-Manning episodes. For a brief sample of Denver’s terrifying competence on D, there’s the game’s final drive. The Patriots, down 20–12, begin at the logo with about two minutes on the clock. Their first three downs result in zero yards gained; each play ends with Brady, flailing under pressure, throwing the ball away or folding under the shadow of DeMarcus Ware.* On fourth and 10, the quarterback hurls a pristine lob downfield, and it’s caught beautifully at the 10-yard line by his hulking 6-foot-6 confederate, Rob Gronkowski:
A great play! Sadly for the Pats, this three-steps-backward, one-surgical-step forward approach seemed to come way too late in the game, when going for it on every fourth down became a necessity for the team. Still, it somehow worked again on the next set of plays. First down: Brady, under pressure, throws an incompletion—his sixth in seven passes. Second down: a quick catch-and-run by Julian Edelman. Third down: Brady, hit by a billion Broncos at once, tosses another incompletion. Fourth and goal: Brady throws the ball, which is caught for a touchdown by his hulking 6-foot-6 confederate Rob Gronkowski:
At this point, the Patriots were down 20–18 and needed to go for the two-point conversion to tie the game. That also meant they had to pull off two successful plays in a row. Needless to say, Brady’s pass—under pressure, obviously—was tipped and intercepted:
It’s worth noting that despite only winning six of their 17 matchups, Manning now has a 3–1 record against Brady in AFC Championships. Ultimately, the Patriots were held to their lowest point total of the season. And so it was that Manning, now the oldest quarterback to go to a Super Bowl, defeated his arch-nemesis without really having to defeat him at all.
*Correction, Jan. 24, 2016: This post originally misstated that Tom Brady was sacked on third-and-goal during the game’s final drive. He was tackled, then threw an incompletion.