For three quarters of football Sunday afternoon, the Denver Broncos looked worthy of being regarded as Super Bowl favorites, despite all of their injuries and despite having squandered some great chances to blow open their playoff game against San Diego.
Then, in the final 15 minutes, the Broncos showed why they probably won't be able to fulfill quarterback Peyton Manning's hope of winning another NFL championship. And why they'll likely see that dream end this Sunday, even on their home turf, in the AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots.
As wondrous as this record-smashing season has been for Denver and obviously Manning, that fourth quarter against the Chargers demonstrated that the Broncos no longer have enough essential ingredients to outlast New England and (even if they beat the Pats) either Seattle or San Francisco in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Notice those key words — no longer. For a good while this season, Denver looked capable of ruling the football world for the third time in franchise history. But it's obvious now that a title is too much to expect with a defense that has lost safety Rahim Moore, lineman Kevin Vickerson, end Derek Wolfe and outside linebacker Von Miller. And that's without mentioning the players whose injuries have lessened their roles: cornerback Champ Bailey, linebacker Wesley Woodyard and safety Duke Ihenacho, among others. And now they have to add starting cornerback Chris Harris Jr., whose knee injury Sunday finished him for the postseason.
Yes, Denver's patchwork defense managed to shut out San Diego for three quarters, but the Chargers were hamstrung by running back Ryan Matthews having a bad ankle that limited him to five carries, all in the first half. Denver nemesis Philip Rivers exposed the Broncos in that final quarter, and you can be sure New England head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady were drooling.
So what can we expect now? Denver and New England, with the world seeing it only as Brady vs. Manning, should deliver plenty of drama and high-performance offense. Unless turnovers come into play, and as long as weather (the early forecast is favorable) doesn't become a factor, Manning could simply carry the Broncos into the Super Bowl. But you have to figure that Belichick will have other ideas, such as coming out in attack mode from the start — which San Diego didn't do.
As well as New England has run the ball lately, with no fewer than four backs sharing the load, led by LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley, the Patriots should be able to wear down Denver's defensive front. And their best receiving targets, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, will be open if Brady has time to find them. If they aren't, others will be.
Perhaps the most overlooked subplot, lost in the Brady-Manning hype, will be the play-calling battle between Denver's Adam Gase and New England's ... you guessed it, former Denver head coach Josh McDaniels. Both have been mentioned as candidates for head coaching vacancies, and both have future NFL Hall of Famers at their disposal. This game will provide the best stage for their creative strategies.
One factor is certain: Denver's late stumbles against San Diego will take care of any overconfidence. There's also the inescapable conclusion that of the four winners last weekend, New England looked clearly the sharpest (followed by San Francisco).
Then again, Brady is 2-4 in games at Denver, and 0-1 at Sports Authority Field in the playoffs (January 2006, when Jake Plummer led Denver to a 27-13 win). Brady also hasn't played a postseason road game since the AFC Championship Game at Indianapolis in January 2007, when Manning led the Colts back from a 21-3 deficit to a 38-34 victory — setting up Manning's only Super Bowl win.
When it comes down to it, none of that matters now. They're two superstars nearing the end of their careers, and they very well could give the world one more instant classic.
But if you ask many unbiased NFL observers, they'll tell you the real Super Bowl will be Sunday night: San Francisco at Seattle.