Peyton Manning isn’t quite finished. He wasn’t derailed yet again by Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. He had his defense to thank for that.
In a season in which Manning at times looked done, he is back in the Super Bowl. He prevailed here Sunday in his 17th career quarterbacking duel with Brady, aided greatly by an often-overpowering, resilient-when-needed Denver defense that carried the Broncos to a 20-18 triumph over the Patriots in the AFC title game.
A tense game was not decided until the Patriots failed on an attempt for a tying two-point conversion in the final seconds, sending Manning to Santa Clara, Calif., to seek his second career Super Bowl victory. The Broncos will face the Carolina Panthers on Feb. 7.
“There’s no question this is a sweet day,” Manning said. “This was a sweet victory. To me, this victory sort of is a great example of what this entire season has been like. It hasn’t been easy. There’s been a lot of different people stepping up doing their parts at different times. . . . It’s been a unique season. There’s no question about it, and this game today was a unique football game. Everybody did their part. It truly was a team win.”
Manning had a modest 176 passing yards. He threw two touchdown passes, both to tight end Owen Daniels in the first half. The Broncos’ pass rush took it from there. It tormented Brady into a 27-for-56, 310-yard passing day. Brady threw two interceptions, both in the first half, and was sacked four times.
Linebacker Von Miller led the way for Denver with 21⁄2 sacks and an interception. He was credited with four of the Broncos’ 20 hits on Brady. Fellow linebacker DeMarcus Ware hit Brady seven times and had half a sack.
“Unbelievable,” Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib said of the pass rush. “We can’t ask for nothing more than that.”
The Patriots were denied in their bid to make a seventh Super Bowl appearance with Brady and coach Bill Belichick. They were thwarted on a pair of fourth-down attempts deep in Broncos territory late in the game.
Brady threw a 4-yard, fourth-down touchdown pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski with 12 seconds remaining. But his two-point conversion pass was tipped and then intercepted by cornerback Bradley Roby. The Broncos recovered an onside kick and ran out the clock with one kneel-down by Manning.
The Patriots’ earlier touchdown came on a first-quarter run by tailback Steven Jackson, but kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed the extra point.
“We were happy we were still in the game the way we were playing, offensively,” Brady said.
Brady lost for the seventh time in nine career games in Denver. His career record against Manning dropped to 11-6.
The Broncos, aided by a questionable pass interference penalty called on the Patriots, went straight down the field for a touchdown on their opening drive. Manning made an on-target throw to Daniels, who’d gotten open running straight up the seam in the middle of the New England secondary, for the final 21 yards. Manning began the day with only one touchdown pass in Denver this season.
The Patriots took advantage of a clever instant replay challenge by Belichick to get on the scoreboard later in the opening quarter. Manning misfired on a swing pass to his left in the direction of running back Ronnie Hillman. Linebacker Jonathan Freeny picked up the loose football for the Patriots, but the officials made an on-field ruling of an incomplete pass. Belichick threw his red challenge flag, contending that Manning’s throw was backward. He was right, and the Patriots were awarded possession at the Denver 22-yard line on a fumble recovery.
They cashed in on a 1-yard touchdown run by Jackson. But Gostkowski, usually supremely reliable, sent the extra point wide right. He had connected on 523 straight extra points before that.
New England 6 3 3 6—18
Denver 7 10 0 3—20
DEN—O.Daniels 21 yard pass from P.Manning (McManus kick), 7:32.
NE—S.Jackson 1 yard rush(Kick failed), 1:49.
DEN—O.Daniels 12 yard pass from P.Manning (McManus kick), 13:46.
NE—Gostkowski 46 yard field goal, 7:02.
DEN—McManus 52 yard field goal, 0:33.
NE—Gostkowski 38 yard field goal, 10:26.
DEN—McManus 31 yard field goal, 10:02.
NE—Gronkowski 4 yard pass from Brady (pass – failed), 0:12.
First Downs 20 12
Total Net Yards 336 244
Rushes-Yds 17-44 30-99
Passing 292 145
Sacked-Yds Lost 4-18 3-31
Comp-Att-Int 27-56-2 17-32-0
Punts 6-46.8 9-47.0
Punt Returns 4-48 3-21
Kickoff Returns 1-19 1-3
Int/ Ret. 0-0 2-12
Penalties-Yards 7-53 7-51
Fumbles-Lost 1-0 1-1
Time of Poss. 30:12 29:48
RUSHING—NE, Brady 3-13, B.Bolden 5-12, J.White 5-11, S.Jackson 4-8. DEN, CJ.Anderson 16-72, Hillman 11-16, P.Manning 3-11.
PASSING—NE, Brady 27-56-2-310. DEN, P.Manning 17-32-0-176.
RECEIVING—NE, Gronkowski 8-144, Edelman 7-53, J.White 5-45, Amendola 5-39, B.Bolden 2-29. DEN, Sanders 5-62, CJ.Anderson 3-18, O.Daniels 2-33, J.Norwood 2-16, Dm.Thomas 2-12, Caldwell 1-15, Latimer 1-13, Hillman 1-7.
MISSED FIELD GOALS—NE, None. DEN, None.