Broncos' D batters Tom Brady, lifts Manning to Super Bowl

DENVER -- He had been pressured, pushed around and downright pummeled for the better part of three hours, and now Tom Brady was down to his last chance, and it looked obscenely fat. Trailing 20-12 in Sunday's AFC Championship Game at Sports Authority Field, the New England Patriots' brilliant quarterback faced a fourth-and-10 at midfield with 1:34 remaining in what was perhaps the most challenging season of his 16-year career.

Vaya con Dios, Thomas.

As Brady stepped back to receive a shotgun snap, he surveyed the situation: DeMarcus Ware, the Denver Broncos' veteran pass rusher who had nearly sacked him on each of the previous two plays, would be coming. Von Miller, the All-Pro outside linebacker who'd already recorded 2 1/2 sacks and an interception, would be coming. A whole lotta orange would be coming for Brady -- one, last, furious push by the Broncos to snuff out the Pats' hopes of defending their championship and to secure a second Super Bowl appearance in three seasons.

And at that daunting instant, with the whole world closing in, millions of people who've been watching Brady work his magic for the past decade-and-a-half surely sensed what was coming, too: One of the best and most clutch throws of his tremendous career.

"Of course it was," said Aqib Talib, one of Denver's two Pro Bowl cornerbacks, and a former teammate of Brady's. "That's Tom Brady for you; that's why he is who he is."

Brady is, notwithstanding Sunday's 20-18 defeat to the Broncos, a resilient, tough and ultra-clutch competitor who will go down as one of the very best ever to have spun it. And even while falling short in an epic duel against a fellow living legend -- and serving up a pair of costly interceptions to the NFL's No. 1 defense, along with a pivotal pick on a two-point conversion with 12 seconds remaining -- Brady saved a pair of signature moments for the thrilling climax. First, he would convert the fourth-and-10 from midfield: After delivering a gorgeous, towering spiral down the middle of the field, Brady watched All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski outmuscle two Broncos defensive backs for a 40-yard catch that knocked the wind out of 77,112 fans and kept the defending Super Bowl champions alive.

Then, on fourth-and-goal from the 4, Brady backpedaled as the pocket collapsed and lofted a perfect pass to the back of the end zone, where Gronkowski beasted safety Shiloh Keo and star-cornerback-turned-emergency-safety Chris Harris to make a dramatic touchdown grab with 12 seconds to go.

"I'm not gonna say I expected it -- because we had Gronk double-covered, twice -- but this is Tom Brady," Harris said. "He does these things; you know you're going to face adversity in a game against him. Because, let's face it: Gronk is the most dominant player in the NFL, and Brady is one of the best quarterbacks ever to play this game.

"To be able to beat him? That's an accomplishment."

Because they smacked around Brady like a crash-test dummy, hitting him 20 times and recording four sacks -- and because they stopped the Pats' two-point conversion attempt that could have forced overtime, with cornerback Bradley Roby intercepting a deflected Brady pass -- the top-seeded, underdog Broncos were able to grind out the victory, setting up a Super Bowl 50 showdown with the NFC champion Carolina Panthers at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, on Feb. 7.

So it will be this era's other legendary quarterback, 39-year-old Peyton Manning, who'll attempt to burnish his legacy by capturing another championship. And Brady, 38, who remains in search of a record fifth Super Bowl title as a starting quarterback, will have to live to fight another day.

The man can hold his head high: In a game that might have served as a metaphor for an offseason in which he was besieged by a deflated-ball scandal and a legal clash with the NFL, Brady fought through adversity and refused to go quietly.

"We definitely saw him get frustrated," said Talib, who recorded two of the Broncos' 10 passes defensed against Brady (27 of 56, 310 yards, one touchdown). "I mean, we got 20 hits on him. If Floyd Mayweather gets hit 20 times, he's gonna be frustrated, too. But he kept fighting."

That Brady still packs a punch was evident throughout a surreal season that saw him put up MVP-caliber numbers, though the Panthers' Cam Newton is expected to edge him out for the award. The Patriots were 10-0 before they blew a lead against the Broncos at Sports Authority Field and dropped an overtime decision in late November, triggering a late-season skid that would relegate them to the conference's second seed.

In that game, Manning sat out with an injured foot and watched Brock Osweiler quarterback the Broncos to victory. At that point, it certainly looked like Manning's four-year run as Denver's starter (following a 13-season run as the Indianapolis Colts' franchise quarterback, and a lost season brought on by four neck surgeries) -- and, quite possibly, his time as an NFL quarterback -- had expired.

So go ahead and celebrate the comeback magic summoned by Manning (17 of 32, 176 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions), who on Sunday threw a pair of first-half scoring passes to tight end Owen Daniels to stake Denver to a 17-9 lead at intermission and trusted his defense to regulate down the stretch.

And appreciate just how good the Broncos had to be to keep Brady from increasing his all-time record of 22 postseason victories and from adding to his ownership of the head-to-head series with Manning. (Brady now holds an 11-6 career advantage, though Manning is 3-2 against him in the playoffs and is 3-1 in AFC Championship Game showdowns).

The Broncos' defensive gameplan wasn't complicated: They aimed to put as much pressure on Brady as possible -- "Oh yeah," said Wade Phillips, the Broncos' hyper-aggressive defensive coordinator, "there is no other way" -- and to put the quarterback on his back. In the process, they did a pretty good imitation of the New York Giants, whose relentless pass rush against Brady keyed a stunning upset in Super Bowl XLII.

While Miller got the big sack numbers, Ware was the player of the game. When Broncos general manager John Elway gave big-money free agent deals to Ware and Talib in the wake of the team's 43-8 thrashing to the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII -- part of a concerted effort to toughen up the defense -- it was surely Sunday's sterling effort that he had in mind.

Ware had seven quarterback hits and half a sack and cranked up his already high level of play in the game's pivotal stages. "Oh, I was in a zone the last four series," Ware said afterward. "We didn't always get the sack, but (Brady) knew we were there, and we got there fast."

On Saturday night at the Broncos' team hotel, Ware gave a stirring speech to his teammates. Selected to the Pro Bowl for the ninth time in 11 seasons, the first nine campaigns coming with the Dallas Cowboys, he was preparing to play in his first conference championship game and wanted everyone to understand that such an opportunity should not be taken for granted.

Recalled safety T.J. Ward: "We got very emotional. D-Ware made them put that Super Bowl trophy (from one of the Broncos' back-to-back victories, in Elway's final two years at quarterback, in the 1997-98 seasons) on the table and said, 'If you want this, it's now or never. You might not ever get a chance to see it again. Seize this opportunity. It's really hard to get to this game.'"

Well -- unless, of course, you're Tom Brady. On Sunday, he played in his fifth consecutive AFC Championship Game, and 10th overall, in what essentially amounts to 14 seasons as the Patriots' starter. That's insanity, and it was especially impressive given all that has transpired in the year since his ninth appearance.

A year ago, in the wake of the Pats' AFC Championship Game blowout of the Indianapolis Colts, a scandal surrounding the Patriots' alleged deflation of game balls ensued, leading to a prolonged NFL investigation and, ultimately, the finding that Brady was "at least generally aware" of a scheme to break the rules. While the Patriots accepted their league-mandated discipline, Brady, with the help of the NFL Players Association, challenged his four-game suspension, ultimately securing a victory in federal court that kept him from missing games. (The NFL's appeal of the lower-court ruling is due to be heard this spring.)

With his reputation sullied in some quarters and his emotional energy seemingly sapped, Brady responded by putting his head down and performing at a ridiculously high level. For what it's worth the Pats-as-villains storyline has since subsided: In a season that began with insinuations from Steelers coach Mike Tomlin that malfunctioning headsets during the season opener were par for the course at Gillette Stadium, it should be noted that, according to CBS, it was visiting New England which suffered from a technological breakdown (involving the tablets on its sideline used to study photos of plays from earlier in the game) during the second quarter of Sunday's game.

One improbable man-made mistake also loomed large for the Pats: After veteran running back Steven Jackson's one-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter, New England was poised to tie the game at 7, but kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed an extra point for the first time since his rookie season, a streak that had spanned more than nine years and 523 successful kicks.

That eventually ensured that Brady, after his fourth-down connections with Gronkowski, would have to come through on a two-point conversion to tie the game. The Broncos, predictably, were proactive: Phillips sent a blitz and Brady, with linebacker Brandon Marshall closing fast as he rolled to his right, threw to receiver Julian Edelman on the goal line. Talib, who'd been on the wrong side of the Pats' 2013 AFC Championship Game defeat to the Broncos, stepped in front to tip the ball, and Roby ran under it and grabbed it to keep Denver ahead by 2.

That left the Patriots with one, final chip left to play, and Keo recovered Gostkowski's onside kick to extinguish any hope of a miraculous, Brady-issued Hail Mary. Then one future first-ballot Hall of Famer had to watch another, Manning, take a knee to make it official, and that was that, in perhaps the 17th and final meeting between NFL icons.

At his postgame press conference, Brady was gracious, subdued and emotionally drained -- everything you'd expect from a great champion who got poked, prodded and pounded but kept taking big swings and very nearly willed his team to an unlikely overtime for the ages.

"We lost to a very good football team today," Brady said. "I wish that two-point play would have been different. I'm sure everyone could look at different plays throughout the game when it's that close and say, 'Man, I wish I would have made that play.' But I'm proud of the way we fought, and certainly fought to the end."

And though this season will end without Brady being Super, it's hard not to appreciate his enduring greatness -- and how hard it was for the Broncos to keep him down and out in the clutch.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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