If New England's win over Denver back in Week 12 was a narrative-busting epic with more storylines than a Tarantino film, Sunday's game had but one clear theme: pure domination at the line of scrimmage.
One week after New England ground the Indianapolis Colts into dust with 234 rushing yards off 46 attempts, the run attack of the Patriots never got out of the gate in a 26-16 loss to the Broncos, who now surge on to Super Bowl XLVIII as the unquestioned class of the AFC.
Denver controlled the game from wire to wire with a suffocating defensive front and a clock-chewing, Peyton Manning-led offense that kept Tom Brady and the Patriots at bay until the contest was far out of reach.
The Broncos scored their first touchdown of the game on a 15-play, 93-yard march that swallowed up 7:01 of the second quarter. It was Denver's longest drive of the year in terms of yardage and snaps, and representative of an attack that, midway through the third period, had nearly as many first downs (21) as New England had plays (24).
With Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib lost to a knee injury, Manning -- who finished with a clean 400 yards -- had his way with a short-handed secondary, terrorizing New England's man coverage with a storm of chunk passing plays. Denver came out throwing seven straight times on first down and the Broncos were never slowed behind an offensive line that held New England to zero sacks and no quarterback hits.
Denver's line gave up a league-low 20 sacks this season, but never looked better than Sunday, dominating New England at both guard positions and containing the edges as the Broncos scored on six straight drives -- including marches of 73, 93, 63, 80 and 60 yards -- before whittling away the game clock to zero on a seventh.
Denver's defensive front deserves equal credit, holding the Patriots to 16 yards rushing on eight attempts at the half while dropping a hammer on last week's hero, LeGarrette Blount, who finished with a measly six yards. The Broncos pass rush got at Brady in key spots, chasing down the Patriots star passer for a pair of crushing sacks -- one on third down and another on fourth -- that kept New England out of the end zone.
The second sack belonged to behemoth nose tackle Terrance "Pot Roast" Knighton, our X-factor coming into the game and fully worthy of the hype after a performance that also included a quarterback hit, two tackles for a loss and his fifth straight dominant performance as a run-stopper.
Put it all together and New England didn't have a shot Sunday. To the naked eye, it felt like eons between each Patriots drive as Manning sucked minutes off the clock, only to give way to a defense that badgered Brady, closed down passing lanes and put New England's once-promising season to bed.