As was the case in their previous three playoff meetings, the
better, deeper team won. And while both the Denver Broncos and New
England Patriots had seen their defenses shredded by injuries,
Manning had a stronger group of targets because all were healthy,
while Brady couldn't find the open lanes he located in Week 12, when
he still had tight end Rob Gronkowski to draw attention down the
With the Patriots lacking the ability to create physical mismatches
with Denver's cornerbacks, the Broncos' defense rarely looked
uncomfortable until they went into protect-the-lead mode during the
fourth quarter. The same was not true for New England's defense,
which played on its heels, never generated consistent pressure and
ultimately got burned underneath and on crossing routes after
dropping their two safeties well back of the line of scrimmage on a
"We thought we did have to run some crossing patterns," said
Manning. "New England has a physical secondary, if you're running
all straight and vertical down the field — you know, intermediate
routes — that's tough. You have to have some of that, but also
The Patriots had their chances — none better than when Brady missed
on a deep pass to a wide-open wide receiver Julian Edelman with
three minutes remaining in the first quarter. Brady executed a
perfect play-action fake, and safety Mike Adams bit, leaving him out
of position. But a near-certain touchdown sailed well over Edelman's
head, and it would be another 38 minutes, 34 seconds until the
Patriots finally pierced the Broncos' end zone — by which time they
Between those two plays, the Broncos made the Patriots
one-dimensional. Running back LeGarrette Blount's dominant run of
the previous two games evaporated; he only carried five times for
six yards and wasn't seen after the second quarter, as the Patriots
abandoned any semblance of balance.
Meanwhile, the Broncos kept New England off-kilter. They converted
seven of 13 third downs, including a 28-yard run by Knowshon Moreno
on third-and-10 to set up their first touchdown. New England
converted six of 12 third downs, but was two-of-six in the first two
and a half quarters; the Patriots didn't flourish on third downs
until they trailed by three scores.
Brady could only carry his battered Patriots so far without targets
as reliable as the ones he had in previous years, including Broncos
slot receiver Wes Welker. Manning had all his weapons still
available, which is why he'll make his third trip to the Super Bowl,
and why he squared the series between himself and Brady in the
The greatness of both is unassailable. But in the 2013 postseason,
Manning had the better supporting cast.
—The hit from receiver Wes Welker that knocked Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib out of Sunday's game with a knee injury did not sit well
with Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
"I went back and watched it, which I didn't have a chance to
(Sunday). It was a deliberate play by the receiver to take out
Aqib," Belichick said.
Welker made "no attempt to get open," Belichick added.
It was one of the plays the Broncos — and Patriots — use as a
bread-and-butter call, a pick play that, when properly timed, is
legal. Welker probably should have been flagged for pass
interference, with the hit coming before the pass arrived at
intended receiver Demaryius Thomas. But Welker did not appear to
have an intent to injure, as Welker led with his shoulder and
actually appeared to take the worst of the collision.
"I was trying to get (Talib) to go over the top. And I think he was
thinking the same thing and wanted to come underneath and just kind
of collided," said Welker. "It wasn't a deal where I was trying to
hit him or anything like that. (I) just hope he's OK."
A possession earlier, New England wide receiver Julian Edelman had
briefly knocked Broncos cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie out
of the game after a similarly vigorous block following a reception.
"I don't feel that I can comment on that other than I know that Wes
Welker is a great player, high integrity," said Broncos coach John
Fox. "We were not doing anything with intent. That's really the only
comment I have."
—Denver's defense was a weakness for most of the season, but in
spite of being without six starters Sunday, it is in the midst of
its finest stretch of the season, holding four consecutive opponents
to 17 points or less after allowing just one sub 20-point game in
the first 14 games of the year.
"I think you want to be playing your best football and I think over
the last couple of weeks, we have," said Fox. "We still have another
The defense's rise coincided with the season-ending torn anterior
cruciate ligament suffered by linebacker Von Miller, but also the
return of cornerback Champ Bailey. Bailey played in sub packages in
Weeks 16 and 17 and the divisional round, but returned to every-down
work Sunday and only allowed one completion.
Multiple Broncos players have pointed to a meeting led by defensive
tackle Terrance Knighton after the 27-20 loss to San Diego in Week
15. But defensive end Shaun Phillips also noted the criticism from
"The magic moment was a guy like you doubting us, calling us
average, saying we were an average-at-best defense," Phillips said,
pointing at a local newspaper reporter. "You said that. I quote. I
saw you. And I spread it amongst the locker room, and guys started
playing better and stepping up."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I should do a better job of keeping up with the
news." — Tight end Julius Thomas, who did not know about coach Bill
Belichick's comments about Wes Welker until being informed by a
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
—QB Peyton Manning was nearly flawless, completing 32 of 43 passes
for 400 yards and two touchdowns. The only misfire that damaged the
Broncos was when he overthrew Eric Decker on a third-and-goal in the
first quarter, which forced the Broncos to settle for a field goal.
[to top of second column]
—TE Virgil Green briefly lined up at running back and
carried once for five yards. The Broncos used a two-tight end,
three-wide receiver package, thinking that would keep the
Patriots from defending the run, and shifted Green into the
backfield, where he carried out of a pistol formation.
—TE Jacob Tamme's three-yard touchdown reception put the
Broncos in front 10-0. Tamme caught two passes for 24 yards and
played 14 snaps Sunday, mostly when the Broncos utilized a
two-tight end set.
—DT Terrance Knighton had the biggest sack of his career when
he brought down Tom Brady for a 10-yard loss on a fourth-and-3
from the Denver 29-yard-line. Knighton's sack allowed the
Broncos to maintain a three-score lead heading into the fourth
quarter, and made a comeback nearly impossible. He also had two
tackles for losses to lead the Broncos' run defense.
—DE Robert Ayers' third-and-8 sack of Tom Brady in the second
quarter proved crucial, forcing the Patriots to settle for a
field goal on a drive that advanced as far as the Denver 18-yard
line. Ayers did not start, but played 69 percent of the Broncos'
defensive plays Sunday.
—SS Duke Ihenacho returned to his every-down work at strong
safety. In the previous three games, Ihenacho had worked in the
base defense, but had been pulled in favor of Omar Bolden when
the Broncos went into nickel and dime packages. He worked as the
every-down safety through most of the regular season's first 12
—S Omar Bolden was limited to special-teams work with Duke Ihenacho returning to full-time duty at strong safety. Bolden
played 13 snaps Sunday, all on special teams.
—RB Knowshon Moreno left the AFC Championship Game in the
fourth quarter because of a chest injury, but X-rays were
negative and showed no damage to his ribs. Moreno will be
considered "day-to-day" when the Broncos return to practice
—CB Tony Carter suffered a pinched nerve Sunday. Carter was
removed from the game when he displayed symptoms of a possible
concussion, but did not suffer one, Broncos coach John Fox said.
—CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was shaken up after being hit
by WR Julian Edelman late in the first quarter, but returned on
the following possession.
—CB Chris Harris will undergo surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament after the Super Bowl, he said. Harris plans to
travel to Super Bowl XLVIII with his team. The Broncos hope to
have him back sometime before the start of the 2014 regular
season, but must re-sign him first; he is a restricted free
—CB Kayvon Webster played a second consecutive game after
missing two consecutive games following surgery to repair a
fractured thumb on Dec. 13. After playing one defensive snap
against San Diego, he played 11 against the Patriots, as the
Broncos rotated him in to give Champ Bailey and Dominique
Rodgers-Cromartie some spot rest.
REPORT CARD VS. PATRIOTS
PASSING OFFENSE: A-minus — Only QB Peyton Manning could make
32-of-43 for 400 yards look routine, but given his performances
of the 2013 season, his play and stat line Sunday were almost
humdrum. He spread the ball around, and only red-zone struggles
held back his performance. New England never recovered from the
loss of CB Aqib Talib; he was the only cornerback who could
physically match up with Denver's 6-foot-3, 229-pound Demaryius
Thomas. Thomas finished with 134 yards on seven receptions; he
had 105 yards on six catches after Talib was hurt
RUSHING OFFENSE: B — So confident are the Broncos in their
running game that Manning checked down on third-and-10 into an
inside handoff to Knowshon Moreno, who scampered 28 yards to set
up the Broncos' first touchdown. Manning saw two high safeties
and a gaping hope behind the defensive line, made the call, and
Moreno scampered behind a seal from G Louis Vasquez for the big
gain. The pass remains the more potent threat, but in recent
weeks, offensive coordinator Adam Gase finally found the
"effective balance" he longed to achieve during the season's
PASS DEFENSE: B — Champ Bailey's return to full work helped the
Broncos compensate for the loss of Chris Harris, and Bailey was
his vintage self. Tom Brady threw at him four times and
completed just one pass. Strong coverage from Bailey and
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie helped frustrate the Patriots, and
timely pass rushes led to a pair of sacks that ended New England
drives that had advanced inside the Denver 30-yard line. But the
Broncos were lucky to avoid giving up an early touchdown when
Tom Brady overthrew a wide-open Julian Edelman.
RUSH DEFENSE: A — The Broncos' key to defusing the threat of
New England running back LeGarrette Blount was to prevent him
from getting to the second level entirely. The Broncos' front
seven was flawless at closing holes and winning the blocking
battles in the interior. Blount's first five carries, all in the
game's first 21 minutes, gained just six yards, and he didn't
play after that, as the Patriots mostly abandoned the run.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A-minus — A pair of funky bounces on punts were
all that kept the Broncos' special teams from their most
flawless special-teams performance since November. They
committed no penalties and didn't allow any opportunities for
returns. Matt Prater was perfect on his placekicks and kickoffs;
all seven of his kickoffs were touchbacks.
COACHING: B-plus — The Broncos' mid-season choice to
occasionally eschew the dominant pass game to try and create
balance drew arched eyebrows at the time, but paid off in the
postseason, as the Broncos have kept the football for an average
of three more plays and two more minutes on their scoring drives
in the playoffs than they did in the regular season. Denver has
more ways to win, and can now flourish in any type of game. The
only negative Sunday was a timeout taken before a fourth-and-1
with 28 seconds left in the first half. Had the Broncos gone for
it, it would have been a good call, but the eventual decision to
kick the field goal gave the Patriots a chance they never should
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