Report cards: Broncos' air attack perfect vs. Patriots

Peyton Manning will make his third Super Bowl appearance after his Denver Broncos defeated the New England Patriots 26-16 on Sunday in the AFC Championship Game. Below are grades for each team

Denver grades

Broncos run offense: Steady enough to provide the balance to make Manning spectacular through the air. RBs Knowshon Moreno, who eventually left with a chest injury, and Montee Ball combined for 102 yards on 26 carries. More important than the yardage was the efficiency that gave Denver an 11-plus minute advantage in time of possession. Moreno's 28-yard run to convert a third-and-10 on the first drive of the second quarter (the free-agent-to-be makes money with nearly every touch at this juncture) set up Denver's first TD. Grade: B-

Broncos pass offense: Aside from a few less-than-pinpoint throws early, Manning was nearly perfect, completing 32 passes (two for TDs) for an even 400 yards. And he masterfully orchestrated the offense, notably on the opening drive of the second half when the Broncos marched 80 yards in 13 plays and chewed up half of the third-quarter game clock. It ended with a 3-yard scoring pass from Manning to Demaryius Thomas, who had a huge day (7 receptions, 134 yards). But the O-line may have outperformed all of their superstar skill-position compatriots. Manning wasn't sacked or even hit Sunday. Grade: A+

Broncos run defense: Simply put — awesome. New England had averaged 214.3 rushing yards over its last three games. Denver limited the Pats to 64 yards and essentially took away the option to hand off regularly after halftime. When the Patriots did cut the lead to 26-16 with a fourth-quarter TD, Shaun Phillips led the charge to short-circuit a two-point attempt by RB Shane Vereen that would've made it a one-possession game if successful. Grade: B+

Broncos pass defense: Tom Brady compiled respectable numbers (277 pass yards, TD), but the pivotal sequence was defined by an already depleted Denver secondary that lost starting CB Chris Harris to a torn ACL last week and substitute Tony Carter to a concussion Sunday. Efforting to respond to the Broncos' TD to open the second half, Brady drove New England to the Denver 29. But he was sacked on fourth-and-3 by DT Terrance Knighton, perhaps the game's definitive blow in hindsight. Grade: B+

Broncos special teams: In a word, workman-like. Ever-dangerous Trindon Holliday fielded a Texas Leaguer kickoff for 4 yards to the Denver 25, the Broncos' only return. Britton Colquitt's lone punt went 48 yards, though it went for a touchback. Kicker Matt Prater drilled all four field-goal tries, and none of his kickoffs were returnable. Grade: B

New England grades

Patriots run offense: They relied on it to carry them to the cusp of another Super Bowl, but it didn't produce Sunday. LeGarrette Blount, who'd done most of the heavy lifting lately (including 4 TD runs in the divisional round victory over Indianapolis), was a non-factor (6 yards, five carries). Grade: D

Patriots pass offense: It was basically average. It needed to be great in order to combat the relentless assault by Manning. Before getting dropped by Knighton on the crucial third-quarter drive, Brady missed a wide-open Austin Collie at the end of the first half. A completion might have resulted in a field goal which would have allowed New England to go into the locker room down just seven points. No dice. Grade: C

Patriots run defense: Subtract Moreno's big run and New England only allowed 2.9 yards per rush. Not much to nitpick here. Grade: B

Patriots pass defense: Plenty to pan in this area, though. The pass rush literally accomplished nothing, a big reason the team couldn't get off the field. Of Denver's 27 first downs, 21 came on pass plays. Losing CB Aqib Talib to knee and rib injuries was obviously a major blow, but Manning had little trouble distributing the ball when Talib was available. Grade: F

Patriots special teams: Didn't affect the game though no fault of their own. It's worth noting that Ryan Allen dropped all three of his punts inside the Denver 20-yard line a week after suffering a shoulder injury after a bad snap against the Colts. Grade: I (incomplete)


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