The Broncos are going to Super Bowl 50 by the slimmest of margins.
After a Rob Gronkowski touchdown with 12 seconds left to play cut Denver’s lead to 20-18, the Patriots saw their chances of continuing their season ricochet off of Aqib Talib as he broke off a pass to Julian Edelman. Bradley Roby corralled the ball and the Patriots’ ensuing onside kick was recovered by Denver to seal the victory.
The Patriots were going for two because Stephen Gostkowski missed an extra point in the first half. It was the first time since his rookie season and just the second time in his entire career that he missed a PAT. That miss receded in the back of the mind as the Broncos defense battered the Patriots over the course of the afternoon, but returned after a couple of attempts to save the season by Gronkowski.
Facing a fourth-and-10 from the 50, Tom Brady hit Gronkowski for 40 yards and then hit him on another fourth down a few snaps later for the touchdown. Gronkowski finished the day with eight catches for 144 yards, which made him the most effective New England offensive player by miles.
The Patriots offensive line was barely a speed bump to the Broncos pass rush, which had four sacks and many more hits and hurries of Brady. That pressure seemed to leave Brady feeling as uncomfortable as he’s ever looked in the Patriots offense and the Broncos came up especially big on third and fourth downs. The two Gronk conversions were preceded by a pair of fourth down failures by the Patriots inside Broncos territory during the fourth quarter (when they had all three timeouts as well) and the Pats were just 2-of-15 on third down all day.
Denver was 6-of-17 in those situations, but came up with three conversions on one fourth quarter drive that ended with a Brandon McManus field goal. It was the only time Denver would get on the board in the second half, but those points were big ones given the way things played out over the rest of the afternoon.
While things sputtered in the final 30 minutes, the Broncos offense got the game rolling the right way with an 83-yard touchdown drive to open the game. Peyton Manning was 4-of-6 for 60 yards on that drive and later threw a 12-yard touchdown to Owen Daniels after a Tom Brady interception.
It wasn’t a vintage Manning passing extravaganza by any means, but it gave the defense the lead it needed to tee off on a New England offense and that was plenty on Sunday. Von Miller had 2.5 sacks and an interception, Derek Wolfe had a sack, DeMarcus Ware was impossible to block off the edge, Chris Harris stuffed Julian Edelman for a loss on fourth down and so on and so on and so on it went for the Denver defense.
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ game plan was excellent, his players executed it with few errors and they came up with one last big play with overtime looming in the background. Whatever other redemption stories are told over the next two weeks about why the Broncos are going to the Super Bowl, it’s their defense that deserves the spotlight right now.