For the second time in three seasons, we get the AFC championship game everyone keeps waiting for at the beginning of each year. The New England Patriots against the Denver Broncos, which means another edition, maybe the last, of the Tom Brady & Peyton Manning rivalry.
The Patriots lost their last game in Denver. It was an overtime game, and Brock Osweiler was the quarterback. They also lost their last playoff game in Denver, two years ago, in the AFC championship game. Playing in Mile High hasn’t been kind to Brady or the Pats over the years, which takes us back to the final six weeks of this regular season, as the Patriots lost four games in six, losing the firm grip they had on the #1 seed which slipped away from them finally in a road loss in Miami.
The Broncos won most of their games with Manning this season, but a 29-13 destruction against the Kansas City Chiefs (no longer in the postseason thanks to the Patriots) threw Manning out of the picture for half a season. Injury? Simply playing terribly enough to lead the league in interceptions despite missing almost seven full games? The move worked. The Broncos went back to winning again, and then two losses, and then while struggling in the crucial season finale against the San Diego Chargers, Manning came back to seal the win, while Osweiler was pushed out to be forgotten, at least during the playoffs before the turmoil of the offseason will begin.
Manning didn’t do anything special as the Broncos held on to a 23-16 win against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He didn’t turn the ball over, but didn’t throw any touchdown passes. It was about making the right plays and leading the right kind of drives, which is what they’ll try to do against the Patriots. Make it about C.J. Anderson and maybe some Ronnie Hillman, hope for some big plays by the special teams and for Manning to take what he sees, instead of trying to force anything. Falling down and getting back up again, like he did before his huge pass to Emmanuel Sanders won’t be too bad either.
So on offense it’s about Manning not making mistakes. Defensively? Obviously, making it difficult on Tom Brady, but how? Obviously, his connection with Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman makes an offense with almost no running game tick. But how do the Broncos stop it? Getting to Brady without blitzing. His release time is the problem, so leaving him those medium length throws wide open is simply giving the game to the Patriots.
The Patriots offense was clicking in their win against the Chiefs, although they got help from some weird play calling by Andre Reid with his team down by 14 points and more than enough time to get two drives out. The Chiefs got the touchdown they needed, but all through the game, especially in the second half, it felt like New England would be getting the points they needed whenever they wanted to. Brady ran for a touchdown and threw for two more in the win, completing 17 of his 28 passes to Gronkowski and Edelman, with Edelman leading in receptions with 100 yards and Gronkowski scoring two touchdowns. So simple, but yet no one can stop it on most days.
Prediction: While the Patriots seem to be favorites, this game is more up to the Broncos than them. Manning not having turnovers is a start, but it has to come with a defense that disturbs and slows down the Patriots. Making this game a score-for-score contest plays right into New England’s hands.