Broncos 24, Chargers 17
How it happened:A year to the date after their 2012 campaign came to a painful conclusion, the Broncos righted their playoff disappointment from the previous season and defeated the Chargers in a Divisional Round showdown at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. In the first-ever playoff game between the AFC West rivals, the Broncos jumped out to a quick start despite the swirling winds on a blustery Denver day. Quarterback Peyton Manning guided the Broncos on a 14-play, 86-yard drive on the offense's opening possession and capped it with a 2-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. Manning would throw another touchdown pass to wide receiver Wes Welker later in the half and Denver entered the locker room with a 14-0 halftime lead. Kicker Matt Prater's 45-yard field goal in the third quarter extended the Broncos' lead to 17-0, and after running back Knowshon Moreno scored from 3 yards out to give Denver a 24-7 lead with 8:12 to play, the Broncos appeared to be on their way to the AFC Championship Game. Not quite yet. San Diego stormed back with 10 points – recovering an onside kick in the process – to cut Denver's lead to 24-17 with 3:53 to play. With the game on the line, Manning and the offense converted three crucial third downs on their final drive to put away the Chargers and keep Denver's playoff hopes alive.
Key moment:Facing a third-and-17 from the Denver 20 with the Broncos' season potentially on the line, Manning found tight end Julius Thomas for a 21-yard completion. Seven plays – and two more third-down conversions – later, the Broncos were on their way to the AFC Championship Game.* *
It was over when:Moreno picked up 5 yards on third-and-1 in the game's closing moments.
Key performer:The defensive line. The relentless pressure on Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was a key part in Denver shutting out San Diego for three quarters, as the Broncos sacked Rivers four times. Defensive end Shaun Phillips had a pair, while defensive end Jeremy Mincey and defensive end Malik Jackson also recorded a sack each.
AFC Championship Game
Broncos 26, Patriots 16
How it happened: On a radiant Denver afternoon, the Broncos won their seventh AFC Championship in franchise history in convincing fashion. Just 13 days before being named NFL MVP for a record fifth time in his career, Manning turned in a stellar performance, completing 32-of-43 passes for 400 yards and a pair of touchdown passes to tight end Jacob Tamme and Demaryius Thomas. The Broncos responded in similar fashion, jumping out to a 23-3 lead in the fourth quarter – part of a combined team effort that saw Denver finish the day with 507 yards of total offense while limiting the Patriots to just 320, including just 64 rushing yards. The Patriots wouldn't go quietly, however, as quarterback Tom Brady threw a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Julian Edelman and ran another touchdown in from 5 yards out with 3:07 to play, cutting Denver's lead to 26-16. The Patriots lined up for a 2-point conversion attempt that could have made it a one-possession game, but the Broncos defense stiffened and stuffed the Patriots short of the goal line. With one final offensive possession standing between them and Super Bowl XLVIII, the Broncos picked up a pair of first downs in the game's closing moments to close out the Patriots and celebrated their first AFC Championship since January 1999.
Key moment:With the Patriots trailing 20-3 and facing a fourth-and-3 situation from the Denver 29, Brady and the offense stayed on the field – and ran into defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. Knighton burst through the line and sacked Brady for a 10-yard loss, giving the ball back to the Broncos and sending the crowd at Sports Authority Field at Mile High into bedlam. * *
It was over when:Running back Montee Ball picked up 5 yards on fourth-and-2 on the game's final drive and Manning took one final kneel down.
Key performer:Manning turned in a 400-yard passing day and finished the game with a 118.4 quarterback rating – a fitting end to the quarterback's final home game of the season.
Super Bowl XLVIII
Seahawks 43, Broncos 8
How it happened: Not much went right for the Broncos from the onset of Super Bowl XLVIII. A miscommunication on the game's opening play from scrimmage resulted in a safety after the snap exchange from center Manny Ramirez to Manning went awry and Moreno recovered the ball in the end zone. The Broncos defense held the Seahawks to a pair of field goals in the first quarter, but Seattle's intense defensive pressure resulted in a pair of Manning interceptions in the second quarter – the latter of which was returned 69 yards for a touchdown by Seahawks linebacker Malcom Smith. Manning threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Demaryius Thomas at the end of the third quarter for the Broncos' lone score of the game.
Key moment:While the safety and Smith's interception were both crucial moments, it was Percy Harvin's 87-yard kickoff return for a touchdown on the opening play of the second half that truly signified that it was not the Broncos' night.
It was over when:The Seahawks recovered the Broncos' onside kick attempt, then drove 48 yards for the game's final touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Key performer: Thomas set a Super Bowl record with 13 receptions, totaling 118 yards and the Broncos' lone touchdown.