Monday, January 20, 2014

New England Patriots 16 at Denver Broncos 26 (AFC Championship) - January 19, 2014

The NFL playoffs unfolded pretty much as expected with the two top seeds hosting their respective conference championship games on Sunday. I certainly didn’t expect to be in Denver or Seattle for either contest as I would have to fly, and acquiring game tickets was made doubly hard by restrictions on who could buy them. In both cases, only those with billing addresses in the states surrounding the home team’s state would be allowed to purchase tickets. Without even an American billing address, I thought I was out of luck. Until I remembered that I did have one option: my friend Meg, who lives in Denver. Tickets went on sale last Monday at 10 am local time and she managed to avoid meetings at work to snag me a single at the cheapest price. So I immediately booked flights and headed back to Denver, arriving Saturday night in time for an NLL contest.

The AFC Championship game was a 1 pm local start and the weather couldn't have been better, with kickoff temperature a balmy 63F. I arrived around 10:30 am and found Gate 4 to be already open. Upon entering, I noticed that the concessions at the Mile High Village area had a "Happy Hour", $2 beer and $3 pizza or nachos until 11 am, when general gates opened. I opted for a slice and a beer, which lasted me the whole game.

I made my way down to the field where the Patriots were warming up. Despite the ticket restrictions, a few Pats fans were in attendance and cheering on their heroes. Owner Robert Kraft and Jon Bon Jovi were along the sideline briefly as well, but few seemed to care, being more concerned with the players. Ryan Allen, who was injured in last week's game against the Colts, had recovered and practices below.

My seat was in section 504, row 27, which is 5 rows from the top in the picture below.

And this is the view from the seat, essentially at the south goalline, on the west side of the stadium. I was surrounded by some great fans - a few were drinking beer but no one was drunk, a nice change from last week at Foxboro. They wanted to watch their team advance to the Super Bowl, something they had not done since the 1998 season. One lone Pats fan stood amongst us and received some good-natured ribbing that never seemed to bother him.

The pregame ceremony featured skydivers from a local club, with five of them making dramatic entrances.

The cheerleaders performed, the anthem was sung, and thousands of orange balloons were released. The Broncos theme this year was "United in Orange" and nearly every fan was wearing something orange to great effect, as you can see in the second shot below.

The Denver highways were not as empty as you would expect; we sports fans like to think the world revolves around the games we love, but far more people couldn't care less.

The Game

This would be the 15th time that Tom Brady and Peyton Manning (#18 below, handing off) would meet, although no one seems to realize they are never on the field at the same time. Anyway, New England had the ball first and punted after 3 ineffective plays. Manning managed a couple of first downs before the Broncos were forced to punt, but again the Pats went 3-and-out. On their next possession, Denver drove 10 plays for 73 yards before settling for a Matt Prater FG to open the scoring.

New England started a decent drive after that but an offensive pass interference penalty pushed them back and out of field goal range. Allen punted and the ball was downed at the Bronco 7 on the first play of the second quarter. Manning then led Denver on a 15-play, 93-yard drive, culminating in a 1-yard pass to Jacob Tamme (that's Manning rolling out on the play below). The drive took 7:01, with 8 rushes and only 7 passes (3 of which were incomplete) and was a sign of things to come.

Both teams added field goals on their next possessions and we went to halftime with Denver up 13-3. The second half began with the drive that sealed the game, an 80-yard, clock-draining march that took 7:08 and ended with Demaryius Thomas catching a 3-yard toss from Manning. Those two drives were probably the best I had seen on the trip, totalling nearly 15 minutes and resulting in 14 points. Clinical, time-consuming, and tiring the defense, who are not used to the altitude here. Amazing to watch.

Although those of us in the stadium did not realize it, the Patriots were essentially done and dusted right there. The third quarter ended with Denver leading 20-3 and an early Prater FG made it 23-3 with just over 12 minutes to go. No one dared to jinx the lead with an unnecessary comment, as New England had at least two miraculous comebacks during the season. Sure enough, Brady did finally get going against a prevent defense, hitting Julian Edelman for a touchdown (below) to make it 23-10 with 9 minutes left.

On their next possession, Prater kicked his fourth FG on the day to make it a 16-point advantage. Again Brady used a loose Denver defense to march down the field, scrambling for a 5-yard touchdown with 3:13 left. Fans were suddenly nervous, could this be another amazing Brady comeback? Nope. Shane Vereen was stuffed on the 2-point conversion and finally the Super Bowl chant could be sung in earnest. New England never saw the ball again as Denver punched their ticket to the Super Bowl with a convincing 26-16 win that was not nearly as close as the score indicates.

All four touchdowns were scored in the end zone above which I was sitting, something that few fans might notice but makes a difference to me. Another stat related to the thin air in Denver: all eight New England possessions started from their own 20, seven touchbacks on kickoffs and one punt that bounced into the end zone.

Thanks Meg for getting me that ticket, one of the best experiences of my NFL Stadium Journey, lots of fun with great fans all around.


Afterwards, I made my way to Donkey OT, a bar just across the way from the stadium. They had already posted this sign. I hope too to be Super Bowl Bound!

I watched the first half of the late game here, which provides a great view of Sports Authority Field.

At halftime, I walked over to the Original Brooklyn's, a slightly more upscale establishment. The scene around the stadium was quiet.

There is a small Ring of Fame plaza that I somehow missed on my first visit. Turns out it was opened three weeks after I was there and I was glad to find it as I wandered by. That's Craig Morton with the number 7 pillar by the way, not John Elway.

As Denver was the first stop on my trip, I always thought I might have overrated the experience there, but having had a chance to see it again, there is no doubt that it is a top 5 NFL stadium. Good luck to the Broncos and their fans in the Super Bowl!



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