The Broncos are headed back to the big game for the first time in 15 years after outlasting the New England Patriots 26-16 Sunday. John Elway was the team's quarterback the last time Denver made it to the NFL's mountaintop. Now he's the architect of the highest-scoring offense in NFL history.
Elway's biggest executive coup, of course, was recruiting Peyton Manning to Denver. A couple of years removed from missing an entire season due to multiple neck surgeries, Manning is headed to his third Super Bowl. His performance Sunday was typical, making 400 passing yards and two touchdowns through the air look effortless.
Denver's offensive line dominated all day, allowing Manning to construct clock-killing, soul-destroying drives on New England's undermanned defense. Manning set the tone early by hitting on three third-and-long plays in the first quarter, choosing the right receiver and checking to runs at the right time. He fit the ball into more tight windows all day than Tom Brady.
The Broncos had six straight scoring drives, then killed the clock to end the game after a late Patriots rally. New England dared the Broncos to run all day when the teams first met. This time, Manning and company didn't take the bait. They spread out the Patriots and picked them apart, especially after New England's best cornerback Aqib Talib left with a knee injury. It was a fitting end for a Patriots defense that hemorrhaged its best players all year.
We expected the Broncos' offense to play well. Denver's defense was the bigger surprise, playing outstanding for three quarters for the second straight week. Terrance "Pot Roast" Knighton blew open running plays and sacked Tom Brady on a crucial fourth-down snap. The Broncos were better on third downs on both sides of the ball all day.
So many of Manning's playoff losses came because of an imbalanced roster. But this Broncos team is a complete group from the offensive line to the wide receivers to the peaking pass rush. Elway's free-agent signings, from Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to guard Louis Vasquez to pass rusher Shaun Phillips, all have paid off. The Broncos are built to win any style of game, including a ball-control contest like this AFC Championship Game. They earned this win.
This performance in front of the Broncos' faithful is why Elway returned to the organization he once led as a player. This is why Manning joined him. Denver was the best squad in the AFC all season long, and on Sunday, it emphatically proved why.