No matter how you try to look at it, the AFC Championship game between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots is overshadowed by the presence of this generation’s two greatest quarterbacks, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
Manning broke Brady’s touchdown record this season, once again leading his team to the best record in the AFC. But while it’s quite easy to make this game about the duel between both quarterbacks, there are so many other things that come into play and might have a bigger impact on the game.
Like running the ball. The Broncos are much more of a passing team: Manning wouldn’t have broken the single-season passing-yards record otherwise, but their defense might not be as terrible as some might think, and there’s a lot of threat in their running game, be it Moreno as the leading back or guys like Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman who shine in shorter distances.
And the Patrtios have a defense too. They’re terrible at stopping the run and besides Aqib Talib might not have a real stopper in the secondary, but Belichick knows to put his players in the right position and situation to win. He makes up for lack of talent with his own understanding and preparation of the game.
Stopping Peyton Manning? Manning has been close to unstoppable all season, except for that 34-31 loss in New England. He finished the game with only 150 passing yards, completing 19-of-36 with two touchdown passes and an interception. Knowshon Moreno ran for 224 yards in that game, and the Broncos will probably be looking to take advantage of that weak Patriots run-defense, even though sticking with Manning’s arm is tempting obviously.
The Patriots have run the ball well this season, averaging 129.1 rushing yards per game (9th in the NFL). They had 234 rushing yards on 46 carries in the playoff win over the Indianapolis Colts, scoring six touchdowns through their ground game. The Denver Broncos allow 101.6 rushing yards per game, ranked 10th in yards per attempt allowed with 3.9. The Chargers were held to 65 yards on 18 carries in the Divisional playoff game.
One thing worth remembering is where this game is being played. The New England Patriots haven’t been in a road playoff game since 2007, when they lost 38-34 to the Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning in the AFC Championship game. They’re 4-4 this season away from home, with all of their wins coming against teams that didn’t make the postseason (Ravens, Bills, Falcons, Texans).
Peyton Manning calls the offensive shots in Denver, but John Fox, obviously, has a say in things. He has fought his own conservatism this season, but it remains to be seen if he’ll be presented with such a dilemma in this game as well. The Patriots always seem to surprise, like sticking to the running game against the Colts and keeping Brady from making difficult plays, knowing he doesn’t have the receivers to trust.
Predictions – The Broncos might have had an easier schedule, but going 13-3 is never easy, especially in a division where two more playoff teams came out of. The Patriots aren’t the same team on the road, and Tom Brady isn’t the same quarterback when playing away from home. The home-game effect the Manning- Brady rivalry has will feature in this one as well, with the Broncos moving on to the Super Bowl.