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Denver's defense leads Broncos back to the Super Bowl with 20-18 clobbering of Tom Brady, Patriots

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DENVER — is glad he doesn't have to face Denver's dizzying defense. wasn't so lucky.

The Broncos bashed Brady throughout a 20-18 dethroning of the New England Patriots in the AFC championship Sunday that sent Denver to a record-tying eighth Super Bowl.

's monster performance led the way for a dominant defense that hit Brady 23 times and forced him into 29 incompletions, two fourth-down flops and two costly interceptions, one of them on a failed 2-point try that would have tied it with 12 seconds left.

"Von played phenomenal today," safety said. "I have never seen a performance like that from one player."

Miller had 2 1/2 sacks, four quarterback hits, a pass breakup and a takeaway that turned into a touchdown.

"I tell you, I can do it all," Miller said with a wry smile. "I'm just playing."

But he wasn't kidding.

Denver's defense is no joke.

"Defense wins championships," Jr. said, repeating the mantra in case anybody still doubts Denver.

added seven hits on Brady, including a sandwich sack with Miller, and set the early tone with a huge, jaw-rattling hit, a batted down pass and a sack.

"He was rattled," said , whose deflected pass on Brady's 2-point try settled into Bradley Roby's hands. "I don't think I've ever seen anybody put that much pressure on Tom — ever. So, I think we did a hell of a job getting that pressure on him. That's why we're going to the 'ship."

Along with Manning, who was hit just four times and threw two TD passes to tight end .

Manning is seeking his second ring and his third for his boss, .

"Me, personally, I think he still has it, although the critics say he doesn't have it," receiver said. "You want to talk about a guy that started the season off 7-0 and is now he is going to the Super Bowl. At age 39 or 40 or 70 or how ever old he is, no matter what, he gets the job done."

Two months shy of 40, he's also trying to supplant Elway as the oldest QB ever to win a Lombardi Trophy.

Standing in their way is and the Carolina Panthers (17-1), who throttled the, Arizona Cardinals 49-15 to reach their first Super Bowl.

"I've enjoyed playing on the same team as that defense," Manning said of his teammates. "I'm glad I haven't had to face them this season, I'll say that. They've been challenging to go against in practice."

Brady praised not only Denver's front seven, but its star-studded secondary.

"It was just tough for us to ever get in a rhythm," said Brady, who fell to 11-6 in his storied rivalry with Manning, including 1-3 in conference championships.

Other takeaways from Denver's second AFC title in three years:

NOT SO AUTOMATIC: The reliable missed a rare extra point early in the game, one that haunted the Patriots the rest of the way.

He took it hard after the game, too.

"You want to help the team win. You don't want to be the reason you lose," said Gostkowski, who had made an NFL-record 523 consecutive PATs before sending fluttering one wide right in the first quarter. "It's not a good feeling. I deserve all the blame that I get and I'll try to hold my head up high."

Gostkowski's teammates refused to blame him for failing to get Brady and their 23rd playoff win.

"No one is perfect. That's just life. We're all going to make mistakes," cornerback said. "We're in this together."

GRONK CRAMPS UP: In the second half, with the Patriots trying to mount a comeback, was on the sideline, face-down, while a trainer massaged his legs.

The best tight end in the game had fallen victim to the mile-high air and a bad case of the cramps. He came back and made more than his share of plays — most notably the 40-yard catch down the seam on fourth-and-10 during New England's late scoring drive, then the 4-yard grab for a touchdown that gave the Patriots a chance to tie the game.

Eight catches for 144 yards is nothing to apologize for. Still, the loss — and those cramps — will hurt Gronk for a while.

"As an athlete, you just don't want that to happen," he said.

KEO'S K.O. — Street free agent has more than made up for surrendering the game-winning TD in a 15-12 loss to Oakland five days after joining Denver's defense when an injury epidemic took out several of their safeties.

First, his interception of in the waning minutes of the season finale set up 's game-winning touchdown run in Denver's 27-20 victory that secured the AFC's No. 1 seed.

On Sunday, the Patriots still had a shot at the win following Roby's interception of Brady's 2-point attempt. Recover the onside kick and maybe Gostkowski gets a shot at redemption and the victory.

However, it was Keo who recovered the kick.

"When I think about it, I get emotional," Keo said, thanking both God and the Broncos.

"They believed in me, that's why they brought me here," Keo said. "They trust everybody in this locker room. I just hope I can continue to come through and bring home a Super Bowl."

DOWN & OUT: Belichick gambled twice in the fourth quarter by going for it on fourth down even though the Patriots were in field goal range. It backfired both times and they turned the ball over on downs.

"No," Belichick replied when asked if he had regrets. "It was the score and situation in the game."

THE RUN: Denver's QBs sure have some memorable scrambles in the playoffs.

Manning's third-quarter 12-yard scamper for a first down — "The run," he called it, using air quotes — is the most celebrated scramble by a Broncos quarterback since Elway helicoptered in the Super Bowl 18 years ago

"He's going to do what he has to do to win," Broncos coach said. "He's one of the greatest competitors ever in this league."


AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL


Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

PHOTO: Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning passes during the second half of the NFL football AFC Championship game between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016, in Denver. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning passes during the second half of the NFL football AFC Championship game between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016, in Denver. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

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PHOTO: Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning passes during the second half of the NFL football AFC Championship game between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016, in Denver. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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