DENVER -- Finish.
It was the mantra all week long at Dove Valley. It's what the Broncos weren't able to do against the New England Patriots in Week 12. It's what the offense did in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, picking up three first downs to seal a win against the San Diego Chargers.
It's what the Broncos did Sunday in the AFC Championship Game, closing out the Patriots for a 26-16 win at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
And it's the reason why they're now headed to Super Bowl XLVIII.
“I think the losses we had this year – New England came back on us, San Diego beating us, injuries – I think that has molded us into the team we are now," defensive tackle
Just like in their previous matchup with New England, on Sunday, the Broncos once again jumped out to a first-half lead.
The Denver defense got off to a quick start, forcing three-and-outs on the Patriots' first two possessions.
New England got as close as Denver's 18-yard line late in the second quarter, but an 11-yard
“Really, really critical," cornerback
The Broncos started the second half with the ball, and proceeded to drive 80 yards in 13 plays, capping the series with a 3-yard strike from Manning to Thomas. It was the offense's second seven-plus-minute scoring drive of the game, and the 7:08 of game time that went off the clock on the drive made it the team's longest of the season.
The defense once again came to play in the second half, forcing a fourth-and-3 on the Patriots' ensuing drive. But Tom Brady and the New England offense stayed on the field.
Brady took the snap and dropped back, but defensive tackle Terrance Knighton gave him no time to find a receiver, bursting through the middle of the line to sack the quarterback for a loss of 10 -- and most importantly give the Broncos' offense the ball with a turnover on downs.
"Big-time players make big-time plays," Knighton said. "I just wanted to be in there. I’d seen the formation and I knew exactly what I was going to get. I put myself in the moment all week and knew what move I was going to do. He set me exactly how I thought he was going to set me and I just executed it.”
The offense used that fourth-down stand to tack on three more points for a 23-3 lead with 12:02 to play in the game.
But the Patriots weren't finished.
In a little more than two-and-a-half minutes, Brady drove his offense 80 yards down the field in a drive culminated by a 7-yard Julian Edelman touchdown catch.
Prater added his fourth field goal of the game on the next drive, leaving New England down 26-10 -- still a two-possession game.
When Brady scrambled into the end zone on his next drive to pull the Patriots to within 10, the defense stiffened, holding Shane Vereen out of the end zone on the two-point conversion attempt.
That 10-point lead was enough for the Broncos with 3:07 to play.
"Our defense did a good job stopping them on that two-point conversion," said Manning, who finished with 400 passing yards and two touchdowns. "It was nice two weeks in a row to finish the game with the ball. I thought (Offensive Coordinator) Adam (Gase) was aggressive, we were throwing it on that last drive and I thought that made a big difference.”
Just like last week, Manning found a tight end for a key first down -- this time it was Tamme, who sprinted 23 yards down the field for the Broncos' first of two first downs on their final drive.
"I was just trying to make sure I got some yardage and fell down inbounds," Tamme said. "I was really trying to get tackled. I wanted to get down. I knew we were close there — maybe one more play after that we could ice it. Just trying to get down inbounds and it worked out."
"I had chills going through my body and everything, man," safety
Now, Denver has two weeks to prepare for the last game of the season.
“That’s what it’s all about, give yourself a chance to win the big one and that’s where we are now," cornerback