Not only were the AFC’s top two seeds still intact for the conference championship game, but we had the added storyline of hall of fame quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady going head to head for the 15th time in their career. While their respective legacies will never come down to one game, yet another storyline was added to one of the league’s all-time great rivalries. Manning and the Broncos got the better of this battle as they moved the ball up and down the field and despite a late charge by the Patriots, seemed to be in control for much of the game.
Denver moves on to the Super Bowl where the Seattle Seahawks await with the league’s best defense, setting up a fascinating matchup with one of the league’s best offenses of all time. For the Patriots, they head home after a season of personnel changes, injuries, and a number of hard-fought, close games. Here’s a look at the top key performances from the AFC Championship.
New England– Three Performances of Note
Offense Leaves Plays on the Field
Despite the Broncos leading for most of the game, the Patriots’ offense had a number of opportunities to stay in the game. It started with Brady overthrowing wide receiver Julian Edelman at the 3:06 mark of the first quarter after Edelman snuck behind the defense on a deep crossing-route. Brady missed another big opportunity near the end of the half when the Broncos allowed WR Austin Collie free up the sideline, but another Brady overthrow ended any attempt the Patriots might have had at a last second field goal attempt. In addition to the poor throws, the pass protection, which was stellar for much of the day, seemed to break down at inopportune times. First, with the Patriots facing a 3rd and-8 at the Denver 18-yard line, left tackle Nate Solder let defensive end Robert Ayers get inside for the sack to force New England to settle for a 47-yard field goal. It was more of the same at the 2:30 mark of the third quarter as the Patriots lined up to go for it on 4th-and-3 at the Denver 29-yard line, though this time it was DT Terrance Knighton who picked up the sack, beating LG Logan Mankins in 1.6 seconds. In a game where every play can prove critical, this handful of plays were perhaps the most costly for New England.
No Pass Rush
It was fairly obvious that Manning looked extremely comfortable in the pocket and the numbers bear that out. He was pressured on only five of his 43 dropbacks, and spent more time in the pocket than usual, averaging 2.51 seconds to throw compared to taking only 2.36 seconds to throw during the regular season. So while Manning often gets credit for making life easier on his offensive line due to his quick release, and rightfully so, he was able to hold onto the ball and extra tick or two in this game, and was rarely pressured for it. The second pass of the game summed things up well as Manning nearly lost the shotgun snap, but still had time to bobble it multiple times before recovering and finding an open receiver as the Patriots’ five-man rush failed to get close to the pocket. DE Rob Ninkovich (-3.6 pass rush) failed to get any pressure on his 41 attempts, while fellow defensive end Chandler Jones (-2.3 pass rush) managed only one pressure on his 43 rushes, with his one hurry forcing an errant throw from Manning in the red zone. It wasn’t much better on the interior as DT Chris Jones (-1.1 pass rush) notched two pressures on his 42 attempts while DT Sealver Siliga was shut out on his 36 tries. New England sent only nine blitzes on the day, with little success. The game plan relied heavily on a four man rush, but New England’s defensive line was just unable to make a positive impact.
It was obvious early on that the Patriots were going to rely on top cornerback Aqib Talib to track Denver wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, but an early injury to Talib thwarted those plans and moved every New England cornerback a notch up the depth chart. The scene was eerily similar to last year’s AFC Championship when Talib went down early and the Patriots were unable to find an answer to WR Anquan Boldin. With Talib out, CB Alfonzo Dennard took the majority of the snaps opposite Thomas, surrendering 5-of-7 catches for 90 yards and a touchdown in the matchup. Thomas got behind Dennard a number of times on post and go routes as Dennard finished at –3.7 in coverage. He was originally slated to pair up against WR Eric Decker who saw a lot of rookie cornerback Logan Ryan. Decker beat Ryan for a number of first downs, while also drawing a defensive holding call and an offsetting pass interference penalty. Ryan’s -4.8 coverage grade was made worse by two missed tackles as he whiffed on both running back Montee Ball and tight end Julius Thomas in the flat. Dennard and Ryan were simply unable to pick up the slack in Talib’s absence.
Denver– Three Performances of Note
Peyton On Point
Manning was sharp throughout the game as he continually found the open receiver to move the chains. He finished at +4.7 overall, including +3.3 on his 38 dropbacks with no pressure. It was a typical, methodical Manning effort who completed 24-of-28 short passes for 200 yards while taking his deep shots when the opportunity presented itself. He found Demaryius Thomas on the deep post at the 5:52 mark of the first quarter before hitting him in stride on the go route with 0:52 to go in the third quarter. When he noticed Julius Thomas get a step on linebacker Jamie Collins right off the line of scrimmage with 9:19 to go in the game, he lofted yet another perfect deep ball for a 37-yard gain. Manning also did his usual work at the line of scrimmage, often taking advantage of favorable fronts to outnumber the Patriots in the running game. The Patriots simply had no answer for the Denver passing game as Manning was in clear control from the outset.
Pot Roast Controls the Middle
Despite playing only 26 snaps, Knighton made the biggest impact on the Denver defense, finishing at +5.6 overall. He was simply too much for center Ryan Wendell, as he beat him for the tackle at the 8:47 mark of the first quarter and later manhandled Wendell to get in on the stop with 4:47 to go in the second quarter. Even when he didn’t get in on the tackle, Knighton made an impact, particularly with 1:43 to go in the first quarter when he beat Wendell’s reach block, forcing the cutback by RB Stevan Ridley. Of course, Knighton’s biggest play of the game came on the aforementioned sack as he beat Mankins right off the snap to knife into the backfield to take Brady down on the critical 4th-and-3 in the third quarter. Knighton has been one of Denver’s best players this season and he continued this strong play on Sunday.
Poor Safety Play
While the Patriots’ passing offense left a number of plays on the field, it was the Denver safeties who allowed those plays to open up. It was free safety Mike Adams (-2.0) who let Edelman behind him on the deep crossing route late in the first quarter and Duke Ihenacho (-2.0) inexplicably bit on the end-of-the-half play action that left Collie running free up the sideline. Neither gaff will show up on the stat sheet, but they were clearly misplayed nonetheless. Adams also got turned around on a well-run route by WR Aaron Dobson and he allowed Edelman to get inside him on a post route on the goal line that resulted in yet another over throw. Ihenacho had more issues on play action as he got lost on New England’s fake end around action with 4:59 to go in the third quarter and he missed a tackle on RB Shane Vereen on the very next play. Though they were often bailed out, it wasn’t a good day for Denver safeties.
-Brady was 1-for-5 for 27 yards on passes thrown beyond 20 yards
-Broncos RT Orlando Franklin was the game’s highest-graded offensive lineman at +4.3.
-Broncos CB Champ Bailey graded at +2.6 overall on 56 snaps, the most action he’s seen since Week 6.
PFF Game Ball
Peyton Manning was in full control of the game and his 32-for-43, 400-yard effort and +4.7 overall grade make him the obvious choice for the game ball.
Follow Steve on Twitter.