NFL games often are decided by more than a matchup between the two quarterbacks, but the future Hall of Famer who performed the best in the 15th meeting between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady would undoubtedly lead his team to victory. That certainly turned out to be the case, as Manning didn't just outplay Brady; he made his arch rival look like a mere second-stringer by comparison.
The differences between Manning and Brady were paramount throughout the entire afternoon. Let's take a look at many of them:
Manning hit a deep, early pass to Demaryius Thomas 29 yards.
Brady missed Julian Edelman deep for what would've been an early 56-yard touchdown.
Manning audibled to an early draw on third-and-long, and his running back converted.
Brady tried a screen early on a third-and-long that went nowhere.
Manning bobbled a shotgun snap and still managed to convert a first down in the opening quarter.
Brady took the only sack of the first half in field goal range.
Manning's receivers got away with blatant offensive pass interferences.
Brady's target was called for interference (referred to as a "pillow fight" by Phil Simms), negating a field goal.
Manning got to play without Aqib Talib covering his receivers.
Brady had to deal with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie after the corner got hurt.
Manning converted second-and-20 deep in his own territory.
Brady was sacked on third-and-10 deep in Denver territory.
Manning got points in the 2-minute drill with an impressive drive at the end of the first half.
Brady couldn't hit an open Austin Collie down the sideline for a big gain just before halftime.
Manning was 18-of-25 for 214 yards and a touchdown in the first half.
Brady was just 9-of-15 for 144 yards in the first half.
Manning helped the Broncos accumulate 270 net yards in the opening half.
Brady restricted the Patriots to 119 net yards in the opening half.
Manning achieved six first downs in the opening touchdown drive of the third quarter.
Brady managed just six first downs in the entire opening half.
Manning had a stretch in which he converted 19 of 20 passes.
Brady didn't get the Patriots inside the Denver 18-yard line until there were 10 minutes remaining in the game.
Manning went 32-of-43 for 400 yards (third-most in AFC Championship history) and two touchdowns.
Brady finished 24-of-38 for 277 yards and only one touchdown.
Two things absolutely killed the Patriots' chances of winning this game, and I alluded to both already. The first was Brady's inaccuracy. He overthrew several of his targets. Had he hit them, New England may have been victorious. He was sharp in the fourth quarter, but only because he had the luxury of battling a prevent defense.
The second was Talib's injury. Talib got hurt in last year's AFC Championship, which completely ruined Bill Belichick's defensive game plan. The same thing happened in this contest. The Patriots actually played Denver's offense pretty well until Talib went down. After that, New England couldn't get the Broncos off the field, as Manning continuously hit Demaryius Thomas, who led all receivers with 134 yards and a touchdown on seven catches. Julius Thomas (8-85) also had a big game, though he dropped a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Eric Decker (5-73) and Wes Welker (4-38) came up with some clutch receptions as well.
The Broncos sustained some injuries as well, but most of the players who were banged up eventually came back onto the field. This, however, does not apply to Knowshon Moreno and cornerback Tony Carter, both of whom got hurt in the fourth quarter. Carter left with a concussion, while Moreno injured his chest. Moreno did run well, gaining 59 yards on 14 carries. Montee Ball (12-43) also pounded the ball effectively.
While Denver maintained a strong rushing attack, the Patriots couldn't do anything on the ground. LeGarrette Blount managed a mere six yards on five carries, while Stevan Ridley was only slightly better (5-17). Shane Vereen did the most; he had 34 rushing yards on four totes and also caught five balls for 59 receiving yards.
As for Brady's receivers, Danny Amendola, who dropped a pass, didn't log a single reception. It's amazing how much of a disappointment he has been. Meanwhile, Edelman tallied a game-high 10 catches for 89 yards and a touchdown. As mentioned, he could've had a much bigger game had Brady hit him for a potential 56-yard score. Aside from Edelman and Vereen, Austin Collie was the only Patriot with more than two receptions (4-57).
Bill Belichick made a couple of curious coaching decisions. He passed on a 56-yard field goal in altitude at the beginning of the second quarter despite Stephen Gostkowski being 5-of-6 from 50-plus this season. He called for a punt instead, which Manning turned into a touchdown. Belichick later eschewed a 47-yard try to go for it on fourth-and-2. The Patriots turned it over on downs.
A couple of defenders stood out. New England's Jamie Collins picked up where he left off against the Colts. He had a pass break-up and stuffed Moreno for a minimal gain early on. However, he was beaten by Julius Thomas for a big gain in the second half, as he just didn't match up well with the athletic tight end. On the other side, Champ Bailey played extremely well in Chris Harris' absence. Bailey is going to his first Super Bowl in his 15-year career.
Seahawks 23, 49ers 17
With Tom Brady and Peyton Manning battling each other earlier in the day, I can't help but draw parallels between them and this quarterbacking matchup. Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson will clash on countless occasions over the next 10-15 years, and as with the Brady-Manning dynamic, the flashier quarterback hasn't been able to defeat the clutch upstart, instead choking in big moments.
Manning couldn't defeat Brady early in his career. He also came up small in the clutch prior to the AFC Championship following the 2006 season. The same can be said for Kaepernick, who is now 1-3 straight up and 0-4 against the spread versus Wilson. Kaepernick struggled at times in last year's Super Bowl, and he once again disappointed in this year's conference title game.
This wasn't the case early on. Kaepernick was running all over Seattle's vaunted defense, scrambling eight times for 98 rushing yards in the opening half, which includes a career-long 58-yard scamper that helped set up an Anthony Dixon plunge into the end zone. He was just 3-of-5 for 17 yards in the first half - this prompted a drunken Terry Bradshaw to clamor for the 49er coaching staff to allow Kaepernick to air it out more often - but the passing numbers were so limited because the running lanes were just so wide open. Kaepernick didn't even have to throw, but when he did in the third quarter, he had success. He fired a high number of passes across his body that he was able to complete, thanks to his great throwing velocity. He also zipped a very impressive jump-pass touchdown to Anquan Boldin.
However, Kaepernick struggled mightily in the fourth quarter. He was strip-sacked by Cliff Avril early in the period. Michael Bennett scooped up the ball and ran inside the San Francisco 10-yard line. Kaepernick then telegraphed an interception right to Kam Chancellor. After that, he drove the team deep into Seattle territory on what appeared to be the final offensive possession of the game, but he underthrew Michael Crabtree in the back of the end zone. Richard Sherman was able to tip the pass right into linebacker Malcolm Smith's arms to seal the victory. Kaepernick went 14-of-24 for 153 passing yards, one touchdown, two picks and the lost fumble to go along with 130 rushing yards on 11 scrambles.
Wilson, meanwhile, wasn't very good to begin the game. He was stripped immediately by Aldon Smith while trying to scramble. The 49ers recovered deep in Seattle territory, but the defense stepped up and held them to a field goal. Wilson then missed Jermaine Kearse downfield for what would've been a big gain.
Luckily for the Seahawks, Wilson got stronger as the game went on despite seeing heavy pressure from the San Francisco front. He was able to keep a play alive by avoiding multiple sacks and finding Doug Baldin downfield for a 51-yard gain. Wilson was then able to take advantage of a 49er offside penalty on a fourth-and-7 to find Kearse for a 35-yard touchdown. His only blemish down the stretch was not giving Marshawn Lynch a sure handoff on a fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line, allowing San Francisco to pounce on the fumble. Wilson finished 16-of-25 for 215 yards and a touchdown. He didn't do anything on the ground, rushing for zero yards on his five scrambles.
Wilson was credited with the lost fumble to Lynch, but it was the running back who was distraught on the sideline right after the play. Perhaps Lynch was to blame, and if that was the case, it was his only mistake of the afternoon. Lynch struggled to find running lanes in the opening quarter, but each of his carries seemed to wear San Francisco down more and more. Suddenly, his 2-yard gains turned into 8-yard rushes. He then broke free for a 40-yard scamper, which was Seattle's first touchdown of the afternoon. He ultimately rushed for 109 yards and the score on 22 carries.
While Lynch was strong in the second half - 66 of his yards came after intermission - Frank Gore couldn't get anything going throughout. Gore mustered just 14 yards on 11 carries. He had a 9-yard scamper, so take that away and he had a pathetic line of 10-5.
As mentioned, Wilson's lone touchdown went to Kearse (2-44). Baldwin led all Seahawks in receiving yardage, catching six balls for 106 yards. Golden Tate (4-31) and Zach Miller (3-25) were the only other Seattle players with more than two receptions.
Kaepernick's aerial score, once again, was thrown to Boldin (5-53), who had two drops in this contest. Vernon Davis managed just two catches for 16 yards, while Crabtree (4-52) never had a chance for the game-winning touchdown because Sherman tipped the pass away. Sherman was then flagged for taunting Crabtree, giving the throat-slash gesture. And if that wasn't completely over the top, he shrieked at Erin Andrews in the post-game interview, exclaiming that he was the best cornerback in the NFL and that Crabtree was just a "mediocre at best" receiver. This prompted the following ridiculous feedback on Twitter @walterfootball:
Adding injury to insult, two key San Francisco players went down in this game. Mike Iupati fractured his ankle in the first half, but the more-unfortunate Niner was NaVorro Bowman, who tore his ACL while recovering a fumble near the goal line. Bowman's leg snapped backward, as it was a completely ugly sight. Making things even worse for Bowman, the officials incorrectly ruled that the Seahawks recovered the loose ball. The play couldn't be reviewed for some strange reason. It ultimately didn't matter though because Wilson/Lynch fumbled on the following play, but losing Bowman was just devastating.
For more thoughts, check out my updated NFL Power Rankings, which will be posted Tuesday morning.