Ever since Peyton Manning signed with the Denver Broncos in the offseason of 2012, they’ve won the AFC West each year, finished with 12 wins in each of those years, had one of the best offenses in the NFL and finished with one of the top seeds in the AFC playoff picture. This year was different for the Broncos. With the offense struggling, the defense became the rock of this football team all season long and they put this team on their shoulders. Let’s rewind and look back at how they got to the big game
Week 2, at Kansas City– They kicked off Thursday Night Football against a divisional rival after just getting by the Baltimore Ravens in week one. The Broncos struggled throughout the game. Peyton was turning the football over, the defense was struggling to stop Jamaal Charles and they had a hard time stopping Alex Smith. Football though is a tale of two halves. The Broncos defense stepped it up in the second half and Peyton took care of the football throwing a touchdown to tie the game in the fourth. A play later, Jamaal Charles fumbled the ball and Denver recovered to escape with a three-point victory. The toughest games are always the divisional games.
Week 5, at Oakland– The Raiders entered this one with a lot of confidence and the questions still continued to surround Peyton Manning and his surprising struggles early on. He threw two more interceptions and the offense still struggled to put points up. As they have throughout the year, the defense stood strong once again picking Derek Carr off late in the game and returning it to the house. The Broncos were 5-0 for the second time in three seasons. A big win on the road against a team who was much improved in 2015.
Week 6, at Cleveland– You talk about trap game, that’s exactly what this was. Would this be the week that the Broncos offense got back to its normal production? Not necessarily. The crazy thing about football is anybody can be beat on any given Sunday, that saying will never get old. The Browns were in control of this game throughout and nothing seemed to be going right for Denver. The second half began and Peyton started to pick it up. Denver tied the game in the fourth to send it into overtime and once again, the defense picked the team up and got a key turnover late to put the Broncos in field goal range to win the game in overtime, 26-23 and that put the Broncos at 6-0 going into their bye week.
Week 8, Green Bay– It was a game that I had circled on my calendar when the schedules were released and it was one of 19 Super Bowl rematches for the 2015 season. The storylines were enormous heading into this one. Two legendary quarterbacks in Rodgers and Manning, both teams were 6-0 and this was the second matchup in NFL history with two teams with a record of 6-0 or better and after a bye week, would Peyton get it right? The Broncos offense looked better. Peyton had some zip on his passes and though he threw yet another pick, I was impressed with how he was able to take shots down the field. The Broncos defense shined once again as they held Rodgers to 77 yards passing and held a prolific Packers offense to 10 points. Denver was one of 4 teams with a 7-0 record.
Week 12, at Chicago– After two straight losses, the Broncos were looking to get back to their winning ways. Peyton Manning was sidelined with a foot injury and Brock Osweiler was making his debut in chilly Chicago. You saw a huge improvement with the Broncos offense. They finally had a guy under center who did what Gary Kubiak wanted all along and that was a guy who could move the pocket left or right and he was mobile. The one thing I took away from this game was the Broncos didn’t turn the football over. This was arguably their most complete win of the year because they showed balance on both sides of the ball.
Week 13, New England– This was supposed to be Brady-Manning 17 but it was Brady-Osweiler 1 instead. Bill Belichick and company came into this game with a perfect 10-0 mark and the Broncos were looking for that statement win against the NFL’s elite. The Patriots were clicking early on and had a 14 point lead and then Denver made its adjustments. Osweiler attacked Logan Ryan throughout the game and in the fourth quarter, he led them down the field to put them ahead by 3 but no game is over with Tom Brady on the other sideline and he did his normal, getting them down the field in field goal position to tie the game at 24. Denver forced a three and out on defense and their offense got the ball back. CJ Anderson took one to the house to give the Broncos the win and the Patriots their first loss of the season.
Week 16, Cincinnati– A first-round bye was on the line in this one. Denver was looking to bounce back after losing two games in a row and New England winning two in a row to hold the top spot in the AFC playoff picture for the time being and the Chiefs were still in contention for the AFC West as well. It was a physical game that saw both defenses shine and the Broncos defense bailed Osweiler out after not making plays. Denver had a chance to win this game in overtime but McManus missed the kick. He redeemed himself in OT and A.J. McCaron fumbled the ball and Denver recovered to win the game.
Week 17, San Diego– The scenario was simple for the Broncos, win this game and you are the one seed in the AFC. The Patriots lost in Miami prior to this game and what they needed was right there on a silver platter. Osweiler was struggling once again and for the first time since week 11, Peyton Manning was active and he would end up replacing Brock for the remainder of the game. He looked to be a much different guy. He was able to step into his throws, he was under center and effective and he didn’t turn the ball over which was a huge positive. The Broncos won 27-20 and the road to the AFC would travel through Colorado.
Divisional Playoffs, Pittsburgh– This was a different game now. When they met in December, Osweiler was the quarterback and the Steelers had Antonio Brown. Peyton was back as the starter and Brown was out with a concussion. This was a defensive battle throughout and the Broncos receivers couldn’t hold onto anything thrown to them and I can’t blame that on Peyton at all. Denver would eventually find their way into the end zone and move on and advance to the AFC Championship once again to face the defending Super Bowl champs.
AFC Championship, New England– What we saw in week 12 was considered a preview of the AFC title game and we were spot on. For the 17th and potentially final time we saw Tom Brady and Peyton Manning clash for a trip to the Super Bowl. Peyton was sharp right out the gates and the Broncos defense put an enormous amount of pressure on Brady. They hit him 23 times and sacked him four times. Denver was playing with that championship pedigree on defense as they had been all year-long. New England would score late to pull within two points and then they intercepted Brady once again to seal the deal and win the AFC title.