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Denver defense shuts down Patriots to win AFC Championship

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The Denver defense sacked Tom Brady four times, intercepted him twice and held the future Hall of Famer to a 48 percent completion rate as the Broncos advanced to the Super Bowl with a 20-18 win over the Patriots on Sunday afternoon.

Two of the most prolific quarterbacks of this generation, Tom Brady and Payton Manning, battled for perhaps the final time in their 17th match-up.

Brady entered Sports Authority Field with an all-time record of 11-5 versus Manning, including an even 2-2 line in the postseason. The last time these two teams met in the playoffs, which, ironically enough, involved the same scenario in 2013, Manning led the Broncos past the visiting Patriots to Super Bowl 48.

This time around, Denver outlasted New England yet again, using a last-minute two-point conversion stop to secure the 20-18 victory and, more importantly, send them onward to Santa Clara for Super Bowl 50. 

And as the score would indicate, the latest chapter of this epic rivalry of passers did not have quite the same luster as years past – well, at least until the final eight minutes or so.

At times throughout the game, fans were reminded of how the two QBs would repeatedly torment opposing defenses with quick timing patterns and play-action bombs, but the majority of the game featured three-and-outs, interceptions and many hard hits on the future Hall-of-Famers.

Both Manning and Brady looked visibly rattled by what each defense was doing throughout the contest; although, it was Brady’s two crucial first-half interceptions that enabled Denver to take the 17-9 lead going into the locker room.

One field goal apiece made it a 20-12 game in favor of the Broncos halfway through the fourth quarter, with neither squad able to move the ball enough to meander into the end zone.

The crucial moment in the game came with 5:30 remaining on the game clock, New England driving into Denver’s red zone and going for it on fourth down. Normally, in these situations, no team does it better than the Patriots – nine times out of ten, Brady will stretch over his offensive line to secure the first down.

Maybe they should have stuck to that.

Instead, Brady faked a handoff to running back James White and threw a lob to wide receiver Julian Edelman, who was instantly met by defensive back Chris Harris for no gain.

All seemed to be lost for the team playing in its fifth consecutive AFC Championship Game. Except it wasn’t. Because this is still Brady, and after the Broncos went three-and-out, he would not go down without a fight.

New England got the ball back for one final drive to tie the game at 20. Actually, make that two final drives, thanks to a combination of clock mismanagement by Denver and smart defense by the Patriots.

The Rob Gronkowski show arrived late to the party, but he converted two huge fourth-down pass plays – one to get them into the red zone, the other to give them the opportunity to tie the game – that surely had Denver fans sweating. Gronkowski ended with eight receptions for 144 yards and one TD. 

Seventeen seconds left, the Broncos led 20-18 after the touchdown to Gronk, and the Patriots were one successful two-point conversion away from sending the game into overtime.

However, it just was not meant to be, as Brady’s attempted pass to Edelman was deflected and intercepted by Denver, preventing New England from the chance to defend its championship.

Brady, now 2-7 in his career playing in Denver, finished 27-of-56 for 310 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, while Manning went 17-of-32 for 176 yards and two touchdowns.

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