By RANDY COVITZ
The Kansas City Star
• High point: The Broncos dominated New England 26-16 in winning the AFC championship game. Denver scored on six consecutive possessions two touchdowns and four field goals and kept the Patriots out of the end zone until the fourth quarter. The victory gave Peyton Manning a much-needed win over Brady, squaring their AFC championship matchups at 2-2. And it erased the bitter memory of last seasons double-overtime loss to Baltimore.
• Low point: The Broncos blew the biggest lead in franchise history, a 24-0 halftime advantage at New England, and lost 34-31 in overtime Nov. 24. The Broncos forced three turnovers in the first half, and running back Knowshon Moreno ran for 224 yards, the best performance in the NFL in 2013. But Brady and the Patriots would storm back in the second half and took a 31-24 lead before Manning hit Demaryius Thomas with an 11-yard TD pass late in the fourth quarter. But a New England punt in overtime glanced off Broncos cornerback Tony Carter and was recovered by the Patriots. Stephen Gostkowski then won the game with a 31-yard field goal, handing the Broncos their second loss.
• Play of the year: It wasnt spectacular, but it was a heady play by Moreno that helped the Broncos win a 51-48 shootout at Dallas on Oct. 6. With 1:57 left and the score tied at 48, Broncos LB Danny Trevathan intercepted a Tony Romo pass at the Cowboys 24. When Moreno ran for 1 yard and a first down rather than 2 yards and a touchdown, it enabled the Broncos to drain the clock and Matt Prater kicked a game-winning, 28-yard field goal.
• Team MVP: Is there any doubt? Quarterback Peyton Manning is the odds-on favorite to extend his record of NFL Most Valuable Player awards with five when its announced on Sunday night. All he did was throw for more yards (5,477) and more touchdowns (55) in a single season than any NFL player. He also set a league record with 289 first downs by passing.
• Best coaching move: During the Broncos bye week, coach John Fox was stricken with a heart ailment and underwent aortic valve replacement surgery Nov. 4. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, a former coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, stepped in as interim coach and led the Broncos to a 3-1 record before Fox returned for the final four games and through the playoffs to the Super Bowl. That scenario is unprecedented in NFL history.
• Defining moment: The Baltimore Ravens opened defense of their Super Bowl title in Denver, where they had broken the Broncos hearts with a double-overtime win in the 2012 playoffs. After a 33-minute weather delay, Manning would match an NFL record with seven touchdown passes, capped by a 78-yard bubble screen to Demaryius Thomas in the 49-27 victory. That result exorcised the painful playoff loss and catapulted Manning to his record-setting season.
• High point: The Seahawks took the rubber match in what is now the NFLs hottest rivalry when they defeated NFC West adversary San Francisco 23-17 in the NFC championship and advanced to the Super Bowl for the second time. The Seahawks took their first lead of an intensely played game at 20-17 when quarterback Russell Wilson hit Jermaine Kearse for a 35-yard touchdown on fourth-and-seven, a free play when a 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith had jumped offsides. The game wasnt settled until seconds remained, and on first down from the Seattle 18, cornerback Richard Sherman tipped a pass intended for Michael Crabtree, and Malcolm Smith made the interception, followed by Shermans post-game rant heard around the world.
• Low point: The Seahawks 14-game home winning streak was snapped in a frustrating 17-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Dec. 22. The Seahawks intercepted Carson Palmer four times but could not generate much offense, punting a season-most nine times. Typifying the frustration, after Malcolm Smith intercepted a Chris Clemons-batted pass with 42 seconds left in the first half and returned it to the 3, the Seahawks could not move the ball, and Steven Hauschkas 24-yard field-goal attempt hit the upright and was no good. Trailing 17-10 in the final 2 minutes, Russell Wilsons pass to Doug Baldwin caromed off Baldwins arm and was intercepted, allowing Arizona to run out the clock.
• Play of the year: The Seahawks trailed at Houston 20-13 in week four after a Russell Wilson pass was intercepted with 5 minutes left in regulation. But cornerback Richard Sherman jumped a route and intercepted a pass by Houstons Matt Schaub intended for Owen Daniels. Sherman returned it 58 yards for a touchdown, tying the game with 2:40 remaining. Steven Hauschkas 45-yard field goal with 3:23 left in overtime, and the Seahawks began a season 4-0 for the first time in franchise history.
• Team MVP: The Seahawks were one of few NFL teams that ran the ball more than they threw it (509 runs, 464 dropbacks), and thats because of Marshawn Lynch, who ranked sixth in the NFL in rushing with 1,257 yards and tied the Chiefs Jamaal Charles with 12 rushing TDs. Quarterback Russell Wilson called Lynch the clubs MVP because his running establishes the teams physical style of the offense and takes the pressure off the passing game.
Best coaching move
This happened before the season, when Seattle coach Pete Carroll made changes to a defense that had surrendered the fewest points in the NFL and ranked fourth in yards allowed. Carroll and new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn moved six of their 10 returning starters to line up at new positions or trade roles, such as switching from weak side to strong side or swapping responsibilities in the secondary. The result: the No. 1-ranked defense in the NFL, which created the most turnovers and still allowed the fewest points.
The Seahawks put up a goal-line stand that preserved a 14-9 win in a Monday night game at St. Louis on Oct. 28. The Rams, starting from their 3, drove to inside the Seattle 10, but were held out of the end zone on five plays from inside the 6. Run stops by Earl Thomas and Heath Farwell and pass coverage by Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner led to a fourth-down pass attempt falling incomplete with no time left, and the Seahawks improved to 7-1 for the first time.