By Gregory Hunt
For the first time since the 2006 season, quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will face each other in the AFC Championship Game when the New England Patriots face the Denver Broncos at 3 p.m. ET Sunday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The legendary QBs have met in the playoffs three times before, and each time the winner of that game has gone on to win the Super Bowl.
The Broncos earned the number one seed in the AFC playoffs by virtue of a 13-3 record, one game ahead of the number two Patriots. The teams met in the regular season on Nov. 24 at Gillette Stadium when the Patriots overcame a 24-point deficit at halftime to earn a 34-31 victory in overtime. The Broncos/Patriots rivalry dates back to the inaugural game of the American Football League on Sept. 9, 1960, when the Broncos defeated the then-Boston Patriots 13-10 at Boston University’s Nickerson Field. Denver leads the all-time series 27-20, including a 2-1 lead in the playoffs.
In the Manning/Brady rivalry, Manning trails Brady 4-10, including 1-2 in the playoffs. However, Manning won the most recent playoff meeting in a 38-34 comeback victory in the AFC Championship Game at the RCA Dome on Jan. 21, 2007, when Manning played for the Indianapolis Colts.
Broncos On Offense
The Denver Broncos have one of the most explosive offenses in NFL history. During the regular season, the team set an NFL single-season record for points scored with 606 (surpassing the 589 points scored by the 2007 Patriots), while Manning set the single-season record for touchdown passes with 55 (surpassing the 50 achieved by Tom Brady in 2007).
Manning has an incredible array of targets, including former Patriots slot receiver Wes Welker, who caught 73 passes for 773 yards and 10 touchdowns. As impressive as those numbers are, none of them ranked better than third on the team. Wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker along with tight end Julius Thomas and running back Knowshon Moreno all caught 60 passes or more. However, none of them got to 100, either, which is a testament to how well Manning spreads the ball around. By comparison, New England’s Julian Edelman caught 105 passes while no other Patriots receiver reached 60.
Additionally, Denver’s running game can’t be overlooked. Moreno rushed for 1,038 yards this season, while fellow running back Montee Ball added 559 yards on 4.7 yards per carry. If Manning sees extra defensive backs in the opposing secondary, he’s not shy about handing off the ball to one of his backs.
Broncos On Defense
The defensive unit has its shortcomings, although most of them are masked by the explosive Manning offense. The Broncos were 19th in total defense (356.0 YPG) and 22nd in scoring defense (24.9 PPG) during the regular season, but in spite of the late-season loss of star linebacker Von Miller to an ACL tear, this unit performed remarkably well in its 24-17 AFC Divisional Playoff win over the San Diego Chargers this past Sunday. Miller was Denver’s best pass-rusher, but the Broncos still sacked San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers four times in that game.
Still, the Broncos will be concerned by the loss of cornerback Chris Harris, who tore his ACL in that playoff game against San Diego. It was only after he left the game in the third quarter that San Diego started moving the ball effectively. Harris was replaced by little-used, 34-year-old veteran Quentin Jammer, who gave up several key passes, so this is a weakness that the Patriots might seek to exploit.
Overall, the Broncos are much stronger in defending the run, so don’t expect New England to use the same run-heavy game plan that worked so well in their 43-22 playoff win over the Colts.
The weather in Denver is expected to be sunny and warm on Sunday, so this game may be a shootout. This doesn’t bode well for New England, as no team can reasonably be expected to outscore the Broncos when Manning’s offense is running on all cylinders. New England’s only chance is to employ some of the defensive tactics used by the Chargers, who somehow kept Denver’s offense under 30 points in all three meetings this season.
Manning will complete plenty of passes no matter what the Patriots do, so New England’s secondary needs to keep Denver’s receivers in front of them and keep them from making too many yards after each catch. If New England avoids giving up big plays, this will force Denver to run more plays on each drive, increasing the odds that Manning will eventually make a mistake on one of two drives. With any luck, those mistakes will turn into turnovers. New England linebacker Jamie Collins was a big factor in last week’s game, getting a sack and an interception, so another big game will be needed by him for the Patriots to reach another Super Bowl.
For more news and updates about the NFL Playoffs, visit NFL Playoffs Central.
Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He’s also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women’s college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on Examiner.com.