The Broncos don’t put forth dominant or even good offensive performances anymore, but with a defense as terrifying as theirs, they don’t even need to be any better than competent on that side of the ball to win. In a weird way, the AFC Championship game was less tense for Broncos fans when Peyton Manning didn’t have the ball in his hands. There was no risk of a lame duck throw ending up in the hands of a Patriot or any other nerve-rending brainfart happening when Denver’s defense took the field, and they were near-perfect. As terrifying as their secondary was this season, it was their two outside linebackers, DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, who won the game today.
Stats don’t always accurately capture the contributions of elite linebackers, but Miller had a gaudy line: two-and-a-half sacks (the most in Broncos playoff history), an interception, two tackles for a loss, four hits on Tom Brady, and a deflected pass. He was utterly unblockable this afternoon, and he put the fear of God into Brady on basically every pass play, whether or not he ended up sacking him.
Take, for example, this play: In the fourth quarter, Brady had Rob Gronkowski open heading across the field. Miller was unblocked and rushing straight at Brady. Donald Trump’s friend probably had time to get away, but he panicked, and uncorked an uncharacteristically loose throw that wobbled harmlessly into the dirt. There were at least four times that Miller or Ware forced Brady to throw it away, and he looked more jittery than he has all season (the only touchdown he summarily threw was at the very end of the game, and he followed it up with a pick on the two-point conversion).
Ware only had two tackles and the other half of Miller’s sack, but he hit Brady seven times. On a huge fourth-and-1 later in the fourth quarter, Ware anticipated the snap count and got straight in Brady’s grill, forcing a harmless throw. Miller has hyperkinetic burst off the line, but Ware apparently learned the Patriots’ rhythms early and seemed to know when the ball was about to be snapped before his would-be blocker did. This play here is a rather succinct summary of how the two linebackers played all day:
Both of the Broncos’ starting safeties left with injuries, which allowed Gronkowski to get over the top for a few catches. That should have been enough for Brady to work with. After all, the Broncos’ offense clammed up and barely moved the ball in the second half. But Brady never got to air it out for the simple fact that he never had enough time for his receivers to get open downfield. When he did, like those two straight wheel routes he misthrew in the late fourth, he failed to take advantage.
The Broncos are one of the most openly flawed teams to make a Super Bowl in a long time (their quarterback is older than God and he can’t feel his fingers) but their defense is so overwhelming. They’ll probably be an underdog in the Super Bowl, because it feels like Peyton Manning is as liable to turn back into a pumpkin as he is to lead a game-winning drive. There will probably be stories about Peyton Manning’s tenuous relationship with his extremities this coming week. Gary Kubiak still isn’t fooling anyone with his purported ground-and-pound strategy, but still, for all those flaws, the Broncos’ linebackers are nigh unblockable, and they’ll have a (hopefully) healthy secondary behind them. Who’s up for a 7-6 Super Bowl?
Photo via AP