BRADY-MANNING? THAT STORY'S SO OLD. THE BRONCOS GOT BACK TO THE SUPER BOWL BY CHANGING THE SCRIPT. THE NEW PLOT POINTS: A COACH WHO WON'T QUIT, A NEAR-PERFECT PUNTER ... AND (GET READY, CAM) THAT PRESSURE-COOKER DEFENSE
AS BEDLAM UNFOLDED around him, Von Miller needed to sit down. He wanted a respite after a defensive performance that ranked among the greatest in playoff history, after an AFC championship game that remained in doubt until the final seconds, after an old Peyton Manning had become the old Peyton Manning once again.
The Broncos' sack savant settled into a chair in the corner of his locker room Sunday night, away from the discarded confetti and the teammates shouting at TV cameras, away from the rapper T.I. Miller wore oversized Sally Jessy Raphael glasses and two gold chains studded with diamonds as he kicked up his white designer sneakers. He had grand plans for the evening: a party with teammates in his 3,800-square-foot basement, which he calls Club 58, after his jersey number—a man cave with eight TVs, a projection screen, a pool table, a Pop-A-Shot machine and bar stools sturdy enough to support 350-pound linemen. He had even grander plans for two weeks hence: a date with the Panthers in Super Bowl 50.
For the previous four hours Miller and the Broncos' defense had terrorized the Patriots, combining for four sacks and 23 quarterback hits (the most by any team this season) while intercepting Tom Brady twice. Cornerback Bradley Roby had snagged a tipped Brady pass on a two-point-conversion attempt with 12 seconds remaining to cement a 20--18 triumph. DeMarcus Ware, Miller's idol and the other half of the best pass-rush tandem in football, had secured the first Super Bowl appearance of his 11-year career.
Afterward Miller needed a moment. He needed time to process the run that had started when the Broncos installed their legendary QB, John Elway, as vice president in 2011. And how Elway had made Miller his first draft pick. And how Elway stuck with the 39-year-old Manning throughout an abysmal season so that Manning could become the oldest passer in football history to take a team to the Super Bowl. The previous oldest? Elway, in 1999, at 38. "I just knew," Miller said. "All week I felt so confident—I knew we were going to win."
Count Miller in the minority. Few had predicted a Denver victory. Fewer predicted how it would happen. The buildup, with its roughly 8,934 infographics, focused on Brady-Manning XVII, on the rivalry that never seems to end. But Manning's Last Stand—what retired quarterback Trent Dilfer called his "John Wayne moment"—was in the end decided by a former quarterback who 13 years ago converted to tight end; by a cornerback who played with a bum shoulder; by a punter who might have been the most valuable Bronco on the day; and by a silver-haired defensive coordinator who drew up an epic game plan at the ripe old age of 68.
"That," Miller said, "has kind of been our season."
THE PATRIOTS WON the coin toss and elected to receive. That was the first unexpected thing that happened Sunday. The decision portended a confidence in their game plan, a desire to vault to an early lead and force the plodding Broncos and their ancient QB to throw.
Only Manning did throw. After a stop on the Patriots' opening drive, his passes pushed Denver down the field, and on second-and-11 from New England's 21, he found tight end Owen Daniels, who'd spent one season at Wisconsin playing QB, in blown coverage against a linebacker. Touchdown.
The second unexpected thing that happened on Sunday was a one-yard first-quarter TD plunge by Patriots running back Steven Jackson—the same Jackson, plucked from his couch one month ago, who made $114,117 this season (or about what Brady might command for a speaking engagement). Even more unexpected—and ultimately far more important—was what followed, a missed extra point by Stephen Gostkowski, one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history. And then a fourth surprise: Early in the second quarter Brady, who threw just seven picks in the entire regular season, forced a pass in the direction of tight end Rob Gronkowski. Miller intercepted and returned it to New England's 16. Three plays later Manning again found Daniels for a 12-yard score that put Denver up 14--6.
At halftime, Patriots coach Bill Belichick swapped his blue pullover for a trademark gray hoodie. For luck, or maybe some nacho stain, we'll never know, but the costume change seemed to augur a second act, another comeback. Like, say, last season's Super Bowl victory.
It never materialized. The Broncos chased Brady as if Queen and David Bowie (RIP) were singing "Under Pressure" into the QB's helmet. Punter Britton Colquitt kept the Patriots pinned back near their end zone with nine punts that averaged a hearty 47.0 yards, four of which dropped inside New England's 20.
Brandon McManus's 31-yard field goal extended Denver's lead to 20--12 with 10:02 remaining—and still it seemed perfectly reasonable that some Brady mojo remained. Twice in the final 10 minutes the QB drove inside the Broncos' 20-yard line. And twice the Broncos held on fourth down. The first came when cornerback Chris Harris, playing essentially with one arm because of a bum left shoulder, dragged down receiver Julian Edelman short of the marker. The second came on an incompletion, with Brady throwing under duress.
Even then the Patriots mounted one final drive. (It helped that Manning and the offense did so little in their last two possessions: six plays, three yards gained and two punts). On another fourth down—10 yards to go, from the 50-yard line, with 1:34 left—Brady connected with Gronkowski for 40 yards. On yet another he lobbed a prayer into thin air that Gronkowski corralled for six points after knocking Harris to the ground.
The two-point conversion failed. So did the onside kick, recovered by Shiloh Keo, who leaped into the stands. Confetti showered the field. Edelman limped off. Gostkowski blamed himself for his missed kick, the decisive point: "I feel like I lost the game."
Wade Phillips? He was just lost. Shortly after the last whistle, for reasons unknown, Denver's 68-year-old defensive coordinator retreated to the Broncos' locker room, nearly causing him to miss the championship ceremony that he'd made possible. (A team employee finally fetched him.) Phillips's game plan had seemed inspired by the blueprint Rex Ryan's Jets used to knock the Patriots from the 2011 playoffs: employ six defensive backs, flooding the middle of the field with defenders; play as much man as possible, doubling Gronkowski and Edelman at every opportunity; and, above all, mix up where the pressure was coming from, play to play. For an offense like the Patriots', which changes as much as any other from week to week, things can fall apart when they see something unexpected on D. It helps, too, that Miller and Ware feasted on a depleted O-line. "That was the most impressive defensive performance for the Broncos I've ever seen," said Shannon Sharpe, Denver's Hall of Fame tight end.
In the end Phillips walked back onto the field wearing only a long-sleeve T-shirt. It was his Bud Grant moment.
I LD? MANNING DROPPED back on a third-and-10 in the third quarter Sunday, saw his receivers covered and rumbled off right tackle like a giraffe on ice skates. Twelve yards and a first down. Old? "He was trucking," tackle Ryan Harris laughed.
Meanwhile, Brett Favre watched from his 465-acre farm in Mississippi. Favre had heard Manning saying all week that he wasn't thinking too far into the future. But Favre knew better. He starred in this same movie with the Vikings in 2009, advancing to the NFC title game. (He lost.) "You say you're not thinking about the end," said Favre, on his way to hunt deer. "But it consumes you. You know it's unlikely you'll ever get that chance again."
For Favre, to watch Manning this year was to see another actor channeling his performance in a remake of The End—only Manning's drop in velocity was more drastic and noticeable because Manning never had Favre's arm strength. Favre heard Manning say this year was different than the 16 before it—because of his 17 interceptions in nine weeks, because of the tear in the plantar fascia near his left heel that shelved him for six games. He had looked, Favre said, "sort of un-Peyton-like."
Across the city that adopted Manning when he arrived in 2012, the older and the headed-that-way, those forced like Favre to confront retirement, were compelled to consider what's next. They watched Manning and saw themselves. "The fact is, we're all aging," said Amanda Gregg, director of the downtown Office of Aging, a sort of counseling center for senior citizens. That office exists, Gregg says, so that we might see advancing age as less of a negative, more of a benefit. After the Broncos beat the Steelers a week earlier, Harris had called Manning a "game manager." That could be viewed as a drawback—or, on Sunday, an asset.
All of Denver, it seemed, could relate to Manning's hanging on. People like Brian Young, who danced professionally all over the world, through his prime and into his 30s. At 35 now and running a Denver studio, Young can sympathize with the QB. For years Young could easily spring out of bed and bend his body in half, contorting like a pretzel. Now? Only on a good day, after an extensive warmup. His body aches from his toes to his shoulders. That can be depressing, just thinking about the end. "It's not that you can't continue to do what you love," he says. "It's that the joy starts coming out of it. There are days where I'm still strong and locked in—just fewer of them. There are other days where I'm like, Jesus, I just can't do this anymore."
Manning had plenty of those days this season, sprinkled with a few joyful afternoons like Sunday. "As we get older some of our abilities leave us," Sharpe said. "We can't run as fast, can't jump as far. But we don't forget what it is that we know how to do."
Amen, Manning might have said as the Brady-Manning narrative shifted yet again. Here Manning had won a third straight playoff meeting with his nemesis. He improved to 4--1 in conference championship games and advanced to a fourth Super Bowl. His counterpart in two weeks, Cam Newton, was nine years old when Manning entered the NFL, in 1998.
THE BRONCOS DID not win football games this year so much as they survived them. They went 11--3 in contests decided by seven points or fewer, including Sunday's victory; no team in NFL history won so many nail-biters. Of course they would prefer that outsiders focus on the fact that they won, rather than the how of it all. "I've never had a season like this," said left tackle Ryan Harris, "but I don't look at it as weakness. I think it speaks to our resolve."
Denver's 2015 campaign unfolded with more dramatics than a season of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. There was the Manning--or--Brock Osweiler quarterback debate; Manning's injury in November, and the (denied) HGH allegation lobbed at him from Al Jazeera in December; and a secondary that limped down the stretch. And yet there the Broncos were, winning three overtime thrillers, becoming the first to overcome 14-point deficits against three opponents that would make the playoffs.
On Sunday, Denver never trailed. But easy this was not. "This is a great example of what this entire season has been like," Manning said at the podium, his son, Marshall, hiding behind him like a shy tailback. "[There have] been a lot of different people stepping up at different times—starters, nonstarters becoming starters. Everybody did their part."
That seasonlong resiliency validated the decision Elway made after his Broncos got bounced by the Colts in the playoffs a year ago. Elway fired coach John Fox after that game not because Denver lost—he fired Fox because of how lifeless his team looked in doing so. Elway said he wanted players who were "kicking and screaming" until the end. Then he hired an old friend in Gary Kubiak, once his backup with the Broncos and then his offensive coordinator. Kubiak had won three rings as an assistant. He kicked. He screamed. And on Sunday he became the seventh coach in NFL history to lead a team to the Super Bowl in his first season with that franchise.
The last time the Broncos reached this cusp, two years ago, they were driven by one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history—and then they fell 35 points short in a Super Bowl beatdown at the hands of the Seahawks. (That Denver D: No. 22 in points, No. 19 in yards.) But on Sunday, Colquitt pointed to the way his team had evolved this season, away from Manning, bolstered by that ferocious D, forged by close games, more balanced and more tested. "We're more three-sided now," he said.
Half an hour later Miller walked out of the stadium, through the tunnel, eyes locked on his iPhone. Sunday would mark this season's final night of Club 58, and while he didn't plan to open shop in Santa Clara, he did hope to add some flair for ambiance next season. Perhaps a replica Lombardi trophy.
Favre had heard Manning saying all week that he wasn't thinking too far into the future. But he knew better. "You say you're not thinking about the end," said Favre. "But it consumes you."
Photograph by Donald Miralle For Sports Illustrated
PATS OFF Even with injuries to one corner and both safeties, Denver's secondary—especially Talib—neutralized Edelman (11), who had just 53 yards and no TDs.
JEFF HAYNES FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
STRESS FRACTURED Pressure from all angles knocked Brady off his game. Manning, meanwhile, managed just fine: two TDs, no INTs.
DONALD MIRALLE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
[See caption above]
JEFF HAYNES FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
SEE YA NEXT YEAR? After 17 encounters, Manning may trail Brady by five wins (six to 11) but he's got him by one touchdown (33 to 32).