The AFC Championship was a clash of all-time greats on storied franchises and it didn’t disappoint Sunday. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady dueled for the 17th time and Manning, after a season of interceptions, injuries and controversy, turned back the clock and willed his team to victory. The defense added an attitude and a spark that had been present all year, but absent on past talented rosters. The result was a 20-18 victory over the New England Patriots and trip to Super Bowl 50.

As the clocked ticked down at Sports Authority Field at Mile High the Broncos’ small, eight-point lead was nothing new to a defense that lived and thrived in pressure situations all season. The difference this time was that it was for a trip to the Super Bowl.

Brady, owner of four Super Bowl titles, stood just four yards away from the end zone and a shot at tying the game at 20 apiece. Moments after dropping a spectacular pass into the hands of Rob Gronkowski to set up the red zone trip, Brady found himself again on fourth and four. Gronkowski pulled the Patriots within two points to a cacophony of groans from the home crowd, followed by silence. The Patriots had battled, as always, through adversity but this time the Broncos would outlast them.

On the ensuing play to tie the contest, with only 12 seconds remaining, Brady shuffled back and to his right, struggling to find a teammate underneath. He found Julian Edelman and tossed the ball in his direction, but it found Aqib Talib’s hand and then fell into Bradley Roby’s arms. The failed conversion ended a spectacular game much like many the Broncos have put themselves through this season. After a failed onside kick attempt from New England and a Manning kneel down, the Broncos had punched their ticket to Super Bowl 50.

“We won a lot of games this year just grinding as a football team, playing great defense, and we played tremendous today and making the play at the right time,” head coach Gary Kubiak said after the win.

Manning and the Broncos could not run out the clock immediately, going three-and-out on two consecutive drives. In an even more fitting fashion, the Broncos slowly strangled out the Patriots hopes on several defensive stands. Brady was under constant pressure and hit often while just getting the ball off, not with the intention of completing them but to merely avoid sacks. The pressure arrived from Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Derek Wolfe and others from the first quarter and well into the waning moments of the game.

“We really talked about it all week that it’s going to be one of those quick-passing games,” Ware said. “The game was going to be won in the trenches, and we said as a defensive line, we have to be able to get pressure on him in all situations. It might not be a sack, but we have to let him know that our presence is there. [Brady] felt that tonight.”

The Broncos held the score at 20-12 after a 31-yard field goal from Brandon McManus with 10:06 remaining. The Patriots entered Broncos’ territory twice before their completed touchdown pass to Gronkowski. Belichick went for it on fourth down on consecutive drives and failed, including a tackle for a loss by Chris Harris and Talib on fourth and one from the 16 yard line with 6:03 to play.

Starting safeties T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart left the game in the second half with injuries after several impactful plays. The defensive backfield that had played magnificently through three quarters was tested down the stretch.

“It changed everything for me,” Chris Harris Jr. said of the late injuries. “I stepped out of my position [CB] all year, I had to go play the safety position.”

The Patriots only complied 336 total net yards on the day and outside of their late touchdown, failed to put together a lengthy drive culminating in a touchdown. When Brady was not getting hit, he was not finding open targets, completing just 27-of-56 attempts for 310 net yards. He was intercepted twice and finished the day with a 56.4 passer rating.

Brady targeted his running backs James White and Brandon Bolden 19 times, mostly on the outside, trying to take advantage of a mismatch in speed, but completed only five of those (although for 74 yards). The Patriots added just 44 yards rushing. Gronkowski’s late catches put him at 144 yards receiving on eight receptions, 44 of which came on the final drive.

“We knew if we took could take away that first throw the dogs were coming. Once we did that, everyone was aggressive, we played up on the line and that’s what it took today,” Harris said of the defense’s game plan.

Von Miller and Darian Stewart were responsible for Brady’s interceptions and the Broncos capitalized on just one of the turnovers. Manning found Daniels for his second touchdown reception of the day moments after Miller dropped into coverage on Gronkowski deep in Patriots territory and came down with the ball. Daniels’ catch on the fade route gave the Broncos a 14-6 lead that lasted just under seven minutes of game time early in the second quarter.

Brady answered Manning with only their second drive of over 10 plays on the day. Gostkowski capped it with 46-yard field goal after Ware and Miller sandwiched Brady for a sack.

The Patriots only other touchdown of the contest came early in the game after the Broncos’ lone turnover of the day. Manning threw a pass to Ronnie Hillman that was deemed a backwards pass upon review and allowed the Patriots take the ball from the Denver 22-yard line. Steven Jackson ran it in the end zone two plays later. However, Stephen Gostkowski missed his first extra point in over five seasons to leave the Broncos in front 7-6.

Gostkowski’s miss allowed the Broncos to retain their lead and they never relinquished it. The Broncos offense did not excel in any categories, but did enough to keep the Patriots at bay while their defense held up their end of the bargain.

After throwing two first half touchdowns to Owen Daniels, Manning briefly looked closer to the 2013 version than his 2015 self, but it was not consistent. He finished the day with a 90.1 passer rating, completing 17 of 32 passes for just 176 yards, but did not throw an interception.

The Broncos came out in front of the 77,067 fans in attendance and wowed the crowd on their opening drive. They took the ball 83 yards on 11 plays, passing on seven of them. Manning split the Patriots defense for a 21-yard touchdown pass to Daniels with 7:37 left in the opening quarter.

“The coaching staff had a great game plan down there in the red zone. It is so important to get six points, especially against a team like this,” Daniels said. “Depending on the coverage, we got what we wanted and it just happened to make me the guy. That was the throw to make.”

The success of their first drive would not translate to the rest of the game but crucial plays were made to keep the chains and the clock moving. C.J. Anderson added a 30-yard run early in the fourth quarter that led to a field goal. Emmanuel Sanders was once again Manning’s security blanket and he made a spectacular catch for 34 yards over Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler in the first quarter. Sanders finished the game with team high five receptions for 62 yards. The offense stayed extremely balanced despite their struggles running the ball 30 times for 99 yards and passing 32 times.

“They played us a certain way. We knew it was going to be extremely hard to run the ball, but we refused – as long as the game was the way it was, we were not going to run away from it, you know what I mean? We said, ‘Heck, let’s just keep pounding, keep pounding,” Kubiak said.

Britton Colquitt and Brandon McManus continued to excel and played excellent special teams and Kayvon Webster and Cody Latimer each had big tackles and downed punts inside the Patriots 20-yard line. The Broncos average drives position was the Denver 34, while the Patriots was from their 27, including four drives inside the 15 yard line. Manning knew he missed some opportunities for points in the game but also understood that his teammates helped tremendously with field position in the close contest.

“Obviously the first drive [of the second half], we wanted it to lead to points, but one thing they did do was change field position, and [Britton] Colquitt was awesome, Kayvon [Webster] was awesome, downing those punts down on the 4-yard line. We had two possessions in a row where we didn’t have points, but we changed field position and it was that kind of game in the second half.”

The Broncos never led by more than eight points, but with the way the season has gone it might as well had been 20. They played their game and the end result resembled 12 of their 14 wins this season. The defense did what everyone said was necessary to beat Brady but would be nearly impossible. They had four sacks (2.5 by Miller), 20 quarterback hits (seven by Ware) and blanketed Brady’s targets. Regardless what the football world was saying, the men in the locker room knew they could do it.

“We came into this game knowing what we had to do. We knew if we could get that done that the game was going to be over with,” Miller said after the win. “I don’t know, we came into this game with a great attitude and great energy. It just fed over into the game.”

The Broncos won the AFC title in another gritty win, a word now synonymous with the Super Bowl-bound Broncos. They won the turnover battle, harassed and intimidated the often unbreakable Brady and it took all they had.

As Manning said Sunday night, the win came as no surprise. “There is no question this is a sweet day; this was a sweet victory. To me, this victory is a great example of what this entire season has been like. It hasn’t been easy.”

The Super Bowl should be no different but this team would certainly not expect, or want it any other way.

Email Sam at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @SamCowhick.