When it was all set and done, the team everybody expected to come out of the AFC since August did exactly that.
The Denver Broncos crushed the New England Patriots 26-16, the score looking closer than it was, to advance to Super Bowl XLVIII. For Denver, it is the Broncos first trip back to the championship game since 1998 when they beat the Atlanta Falcons in John Elway's final game.
Peyton Manning was simply terrific, casting aside past playoff failures and completely outdueling his biggest rival, Tom Brady. While Brady was busy missing a host of deep and relatively easy throws, Manning was on fire, hitting on 32 of 43 passes for 400 yards and two touchdowns without an interception.
Over at Mile High Report, the feeling was understandably jubilant:
Peyton Manning did it, with 55 touchdowns in the regular season and 400 yards in the AFC Championship Game. Louis Vasquez did it, not allowing a sack on #18 through 18 games. Terrance Knighton did it, with a team rally late in the season and a 4th down sack of Tom Brady when it mattered. Champ Bailey did it, with a redemptive performance against the New England Patriots that saw him earn his first Super Bowl berth. Adam Gase and Jack Del Rio did it, with brilliant gameplans that showed the Patriots (and everyone else the Broncos faced) were no match for the 2013 Broncos.
For New England, an incredible season came to a close one win shy of Brady getting to his sixth Super Bowl. In a year that will ultimately be remembered a rousing success considering all the injuries sustained, the Patriots couldn't overcome the Broncos.
Brady didn't have his best day, throwing for 277 yards but missing some major opportunities in the first half for big strikes. The defense also had a rough day, albeit expectedly, letting Denver hold the ball for over 35 minutes.
Greg Knopping at Pats Pulpit sums up the season with some nice and impressive perspective after the loss:
While the end result of this game is disappointing, this loss feels a little bit different than prior playoff exits for the Patriots. This football team had a heck of a season. They didn't have a lot of talent, but they were a team. There was never any quit to this squad, and they kept scrapping and fighting even until the end in this one. It might be hard to see it now, but this Patriots team was special.
This Patriots team has a lot of improvements to make, which is a good thing. If the Patriots can continue to play with the fight they did in 2013 and they fill some of the holes along the defensive line, at receiver, safety, and the interior line, they will be right back in the thick of things in 2014.