NFL AFC Championship Preview: New England vs. Denver

qbs-bigDeja vu…again? It looks like that in in Sunday’s AFC Championship game between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots, two QBs who have met time and again will face off once more: Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will meet again for the 17th time overall and the fifth time in the playoffs. That’s a lot of history.

Many game experts are saying that this is the last rodeo for the 39-year-old Manning. That with all his injuries and surgeries this will be his last hurrah. Only the Fates and the football gods could have scripted such a riveting final chapter in probably the most storied quarterback rivalry in the modern era. Everyone who loves football will not be wanting to miss this showdown of titans.

It’s the biggest game before the biggest game, as either team needs to take home a victory, or simply go home. A win-or-go-home showdown, the prize up for grabs is a trip to the Super Bowl. Analysts have said that too much is being made of the Brady-Manning rivralry, that it’s too much hype, but it’s hard for Broncos or Patriots fans to ignore the historic nature of this game for their team. So far, their five postseason meetings are the most had by two quarterbacks in NFL history. Ever. They are also the sports most recognized faces. This is a dream match up that NFL execs could have only dreamed of in their board rooms.

The meetings though, so far historically have been lop-sided, as Brady’s Patriots have owned Manning’s Colts and Broncos. He’s won 11 of the 16 head-to-head clashes. But in the post season iyt’s been a more even matchup. In the past four meetings, the rivals have split the games 2-2, notably with the home team winning each time. With the game in Denver, if the trend continues it might even the playing field for Manning, who also owns a 2-1 advantage in conference title games. The last two times they found themselves in this situation, when a Super Bowl appearance was on the line, Manning won the boughts, in 2006 and 2013.

Only a few months ago, no one would have thought that fans would get a chance to witness another playoff battle between two titans. The future Hall of Famers have had their challenges and stumbled along the way. Both having teams with rosters depleted by injuries to key players and their offense at times slumping. The Patriots finished their regular season losing four of their final six games. They were thankful to make it to the finish line. Manning, on the other hand has had the worst statistical season of his career, plus he missed six games down the stretch with a nagging foot injury.

The Pats are finally healthy and were able to erase much of the gloom and doom that surrounded them with a decisive win over the Kansas City Chiefs last weekend. Their recent history much have inspired them, for the 10th time in 15 seasons, and for the fifth year in a row, the Pats are headed to the AFC Championship game. One more win today would give them a record-setting nine Super Bowl appearances, one more than the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys. That’s epic and the stuff of legends if they went on to win.

But Manning will be standing in the way, and that’s a formidable rival if he’s on his game. He eventually returned to the field in Week 17 and led Denver to a comeback win over the San Diego Chargers, which clinched them the top seed in the AFC. And Manning looked much better and in form last weekend. The Broncos made some timely plays and their solid defense was able to dispatch the Steelers swiftly, advancing them to their second title game in three seasons. They too are looking to set records and join the aforementioned trio as one of the only teams to make eight Super Bowl appearances.

The Patriots

The Pats game plan is going to be about putting pressure on the Broncos’ offense. The Broncos will need to counter with creating anything vertically in their passing game to offset that, but it makes sense to pressure the receivers and load up against the run as well. New England has a very solid and strong defense. Offensively, the Pats are a lot better with Julian Edelman back in their lineup. The Pats are the favourite to win, and there are lots of good reasons for that. Since they’re battle tested, healthy again, and have the enigmantic Brady calling the shots.

That does’t mean they’ll win 100% either. They could lose if the face Denver’s defense with very little balance on offense and no running game. Last week, the Patriots didn’t even try running the ball the Chiefs, and though that was their game plan, they probably will have to stick to some version of that since they probably won’t get much from the running game from now on. Steven Jackson is averaging 2.4 yards per carry since joining the Patriots. And that’s not good against a Broncos defense that was first in the NFL in passing yards allowed and first in sacks in the regular season.

Don’t forget the Pats have had issues winning in Denver during the Brady-Belichick era. In games Brady has started, New England is just 2-6 at Denver. That’s a huge advantage for the Broncos. But that last Pats loss 31-20, was in 2001, so it can’t reallt predict much for today’s game. But when you remember that Brady and the Patriots lost in Denver this season, and in the AFC championship game at the end of the 2013 season, the field could be titled in Denver’s favour.

The Broncos

The Broncos are telling media and almost everyone that they feel good they’re at home for this one. Their defense has played so well and has been outstanding all season, that they will need to continue that trend in today’s game. Peyton Manning needs to play an almost perfect game without major mistakes or turnovers, like he did against the Steelers. And their running game will have to sustain drives and keep them going to take them the distance more than once. Winning the turnover battle is crucial to the Broncos, but they have a defense that can do that.

It will be an uphill battle for the Broncos offense, since it’s not that impressive. Last Sunday they had tons of drops and missed catches, and their running game wasn’t able to do much. It doesn’t seem like they will create a ton of big plays in the passing game. If you look back, Denver’s first and only touchdown against the Steelers happened with three minutes left! That’s pushing it and they can’t do that against the Pats. The Broncos won’t beat the Patriots by kicking field goals alone. The question that will determine a win or a loss will be: Can they score touchdowns against a very tight Patriots defense?

The Broncos had only 179 yards rushing against the Patriots in the first meeting, with a 5.6-yard average. That’s not enough. Just forget about the quarterback situation in Denver, because the Broncos aren’t going to win tonight with a high flying passing game. If they want to win they have to run the ball effectively to knock off the Patriots off balance and pull off an upset.

We think that against a focused Brady and bunch, that’s going to be near impossible and that Manning will gracefully have to bow out to his most historied foe.

Our Pick: Patriots over Bronocs, 30-14