AFC Championship Predictions: New England Patriots at Denver Broncos

Peyton Manning Tom Brady
Peyton Manning Tom Brady
Foxborough MA USA New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady 12 shakes hands with Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning 18 following the game at Gillette Stadium The Patriots defeated the Broncos 31 21 Stew Milne USA TODAY Sports

#2 New England Patriots (12-4) at #1 Denver Broncos (13-3)

Sunday, 3:00 p.m. CBS

It was always going to come to this, wasn’t it? It had to be Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning for the right to go to the Super Bowl. The greatest quarterback rivalry of this generation has been featured head-to-head 14 times, including three times in the playoffs. Brady owns a 10-4 record against Manning and has won two of those three in the postseason.

In this game, each quarterback is trying to add to his legacy. Manning is often hurt in the discussion of best signal callers ever because he only has one Super Bowl win. Brady, meanwhile, is still searching for his first ring since his Patriots won three out of four from 2001-2004.

There’s also the added storyline of Denver wide receiver Wes Welker. After leaving New England for Denver after last season following tumultuous contract negotiations, Welker may be able to prove that the Patriots erred in letting him walk. Or New England can show they were right in that they don’t need him to win.

Even though each team has had to fight through its share of obstacles this year, the Patriots and Broncos are certainly the two best teams in the AFC, and one of them will be playing in the Super Bowl. Here are some things to watch for in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game.

RISING TO THE OCCASION – Much has been made of Manning failing to get the job done in big games throughout his career. With last week’s win over San Diego, Manning is now just one win shy of the .500 mark in the postseason at 10-11. Leading his Broncos to a win in this one will help in starting to change the narrative that he can’t win the big ones.

Still, it’s hard to say with confidence that the Manning who shows up will be the one who led the best offense in NFL history this year. During his regular season career, he has posted a 97.2 quarterback rating. In his 21 postseason games, though, that average drops to 88.6. His 2.24:1 TD:INT ratio in the regular season becomes 1.55:1 in playoff games.

The AFC Championship Game has also been his worst playoff round historically. Compared to the Wild Card Round, Divisional Round, and Super Bowl, Manning’s AFC Championship performances have been significantly less successful. In those three games, his completion percentage, rating, and TD:INT ratio the worst of any postseason stage. All three of those games came against the Patriots and were among his worst individual playoff games of his career.

CONTAINING THE OFFENSE – The key to this game for either team will be their ability to keep the other’s offense off the field. The Broncos’ 606 points during the regular season set an NFL record, while the Patriots didn’t have a bad year themselves. Though not the offensive juggernaut they’ve been known to be over the last few years, New England still scored 444 points, which was good for third in the league.

With two teams that can run up the score, the team that can make more defensive stops will have a huge advantage. Both teams give up more than 374 yards of offense per game, which puts them each into the bottom half of the league. Part of that is due to the fact that they gave up garbage time yards because they held so many late game leads.

In the two teams’ Week 12 matchup, they combined for 65 points as the Patriots won in overtime, and their offenses in that game looked a bit different than what may come this Sunday. Denver ran their offense through Knowshon Moreno, who had 227 yards on the ground, while Manning was held to just 150 yards passing. Meanwhile, Brady threw for 334 yards and New England’s leading rusher, Brandon Bolden, had just 58 yards on the ground.

Since then, both teams have become known for the exact opposite of what they did in that game. In his final five games, Manning had at least 266 yards passing in each, and topped 400 twice. The Patriots, meanwhile, have been riding LeGarrette Blount, who has run for 431 yards and eight touchdowns in the last three games. If each team focuses on what its done best recently, the opposing defenses will be in for a battle. New England’s passing defense ranked 18th during the regular season, while the Broncos’ rushing defense finished tied for seventh.

THE INJURY EFFECT – Even though both of these teams are in the NFL’s Final Four, that doesn’t mean they aren’t dealing with their share of injuries. The Broncos, especially, have been hardest hit as of late. Denver will be without cornerback Chris Harris, who tore his ACL in last week’s win over San Diego. He has arguably been the team’s best defensive player all season, and coupled with the recent loss of Von Miller, really opens up the passing game for Brady.

Denver, though, will have some passing weapons of its own that weren’t available in the teams’ first game. Both Welker and tight end Julius Thomas will be in the lineup this time around after missing the game in New England due to injury. That surely contributed to the Broncos’ focus on the running game that week and Manning’s low passing total.

The Patriots, themselves, will be without one of their stars from that game. Tight End Rob Gronkowski had seven catches for 90 yards and a touchdown, but he is gone for the year after tearing his ACL. New England could also be without Kenbrell Thompkins if he is unable to pass the required tests following his concussion last week, but Aaron Dobson could return after injuring his foot in Week 17.

Meanwhile, though Brady will still start on Sunday, there are questions surrounding his health. He was not spotted at Wednesday’s practice. There are some who believe he could be sick, while there are others who speculate he could have been elsewhere on the complex working on kick holding because Danny Aiken, who is the team’s long snapper, was the only other player not seen at practice. Brady was forced into emergency holding duty last week after punter Ryan Allen injured his shoulder in the second quarter. Allen was back at practice Wednesday, so he may be ready to go for Sunday.

NOTES – This is New England’s 10th appearance in the AFC Championship Game, third most all-time, and they have a 7-2 record entering this game… This is Denver’s ninth AFC Championship Game, and they are 6-2 in their first eight… In the previous three playoff meetings between Brady and Manning, the winning team went on to win the Super Bowl… The Broncos lead the all-time series between these two teams 27-20, including a 2-1 record in the playoffs. The home team has won each postseason game… Bill Belichick has a 7-10 record against Denver (7-6 with New England)… John Fox has a 1-6 record against New England (0-3 with Denver)… With a win, the Patriots will advance to their eighth Super Bowl, tying Pittsburgh and Dallas for most all time… With a win, Belichick will tie Tom Landry for most postseason victories with 20, and will tie Don Shula for most Super Bowl berths with six.

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Tony Consiglio
Tony Consiglio is a lifelong baseball fan and has worked for television and radio stations throughout New England. !function(d,s,id){var js,fjs=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0],p=/^http:/.test(d.location)?'http':'https';if(!d.getElementById(id)){js=d.createElement(s);;js.src=p+'://';fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js,fjs);}}(document, 'script', 'twitter-wjs');