There is perhaps no bigger collection of unapologetic testosterone and bravado than a football locker room, particularly a winning football locker room, and the Broncos earned every bit of this swagger.
Football is a quarterback-centric sport and ours is a celebrity-obsessed culture, so this was always going to be viewed as Brady-Manning XVII, but the Broncos won this AFC Championship Game 20-18 for at least a dozen reasons that are not Peyton Manning.
This was a terrifically entertaining game, among the best of all the matchups between these two all-time greats and, mostly, the Broncos won because they beat the tar out of Tom Brady.
They beat the tar out of him early and they beat the tar out of him late and they beat the tar out of him at most points in between. Depending on who is doing the counting, the Broncos hit Brady 20 or more times, around twice as often as he had been hit in any game this season, and his 15 years as a starting quarterback have proved that the only way to beat him is to, well, beat him.
So the Broncos did that, over and over, around the edge with Demarcus Ware and on inside stunts with Malik Jackson and with Von Miller running past the extra lineman brought in specifically to stop him from knocking Brady on his hind parts. It was, in simple terms, the same way Brady has gone through nearly all nine of his career playoff losses: on his butt.
“We beat the champs!” cornerback Chris Harris said.
“Hey Chris, tell ’em we beat the champs!” said Aqib Talib, the other starting cornerback and fellow former Jayhawk.
“We beat the champs!” Harris said.
In broad terms, the Broncos won because a loaded roster helped cover Manning’s physical deficiencies better than Brady was able to cover for the Patriots’ deficiencies (they have no running game, and were left repeatedly isolating a back for go routes, for instance). The Broncos had the league’s best defense by many statistical measures, and if they’re able to shut down presumptive MVP Cam Newton like this in the Super Bowl they’ll have a case as one of the better defenses of the last few years.
The granular details of how the Broncos beat one of the best quarterbacks of all time are essentially the plan the Chiefs either did not have or could not pull off last weekend in the divisional round: Jam Brady’s favorite receivers at the line, disrupting their timing and ability to stay on routes, and create confusion for Brady and time for the pass rushers to get home.
In some ways, how the Chiefs played Brady — or, more specifically, how they did not play Brady — served as a sort of bizarro blueprint for the Broncos. Study what the Chiefs did, and do the opposite. This came up over and over in the Broncos’ locker room, sometimes unprompted, other times after being asked, and at least once as an opportunity for some insults.
“We ain’t look at nothing the Chiefs did — they got served,” Talib said. “The Chiefs ain’t help us do nothing. They sorry.”
Some of this comes from a rivalry that has regained its historical and mutual dislike. The Chiefs and Broncos have a growing distaste for each other, their games including more personal fouls and much more trash talk. The Chiefs, in particular, had fun during their blowout win here in November. So, some of this is the ego and pride that help make sports so fun.
But, a lot of it is accurate analysis. The Broncos have better personnel — especially with the Chiefs’ injuries — but also had a much better game plan. Harris and Talib may be the sport’s best tandem of cornerbacks, and they did what the Chiefs and so many others simply could not.
Harris said the defensive backs focused on taking away Brady’s first read. If they could do that, it would give the pass rushers time to knock Brady down, which eventually would tilt the game in their favor. That’s exactly how it played out, at one point Brady so uncertain about where the play was going and where the pressure was coming from that he hopped on one leg before throwing wide of his receiver.
Brady threw for 310 yards but needed 56 attempts to do it, completing just 27. He had not averaged so few yards per attempt all season, has only thrown more passes three times in his career and had not completed fewer than half his passes since 2013.
The Broncos’ preparation for this game focused almost entirely on the games in which Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski were both healthy. New England’s win over the Chiefs last week was the only game both played together since the middle of November so, Talib’s trash talk aside, watching what the Chiefs failed to do was critically instructive for the Broncos.
“They didn’t play aggressive,” Harris said.
“They didn’t tackle well,” linebacker Brandon Marshall said.
“I don’t know if it was scheme or what, but they weren’t getting to Brady enough,” lineman Derek Wolfe said.
“They can only do what they can do,” lineman Malik Jackson said. “They do what they’re coached to do. I think we have better coaches, a better staff, and we just played better. That’s just what it is.”
Denver’s win sets up an irresistible Super Bowl, with perhaps the league’s best defense going against its most dynamic offensive force. Manning is aging quickly, and missed a few throws against New England that he’s made for most of the last two decades and which would have kept this from being decided in the final minute. But he still has those moments, and will have two weeks to be as healthy as possible, and who isn’t intrigued by the old man going for one more championship against the young stud hungry for his first?
Conveniently for us, the NFL schedules two full weeks to overanalyze and overhype these story lines to the point that by the day of the Super Bowl we will be tired of talking and hearing about the brotherhood between Ware and Miller (it’s real, and admirable) or whether Newton’s swagger is setting a bad example for kids (he’s having fun, get over yourself).
But at least for a day, and at least back in Kansas City, the way the Broncos did this is an undeniable reminder of where the Chiefs need to improve and that an old rivalry is as hot as ever.