AFC Championship Game - New England (13-4) at Denver (14-3)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
It's the NFL's equivalent to Bird versus Magic or perhaps Ali and Frazier.
Hyperbole aside, the two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks will tangle for the 15th time on Sunday when the New England Patriots visit the Denver Broncos with a trip to Super Bowl XLVIII on the line.
Brady has generally had the edge in the personal rivalry historically, going 10-4 against Manning's Colts and now Broncos, including a triumph earlier this season when Denver jumped out to a 24-0 halftime lead before New England stormed back for a 34-31 overtime win in Foxborough.
Things have tightened up in the head-to-head battle over recent years, though, and Peyton has posted a 4-4 mark in his last eight matchups with Brady after dropping the first six meetings.
Sunday's contest also marks the fourth postseason meeting between the two superstars and the third AFC Championship Game matchup in the last 11 years, dating back to the 2003 AFC title tilt when Brady and Co. got the best of Manning's Colts 24-14 at Gillette Stadium.
A year later "Tom Terrific" was at it again as New England downed the Colts, 20-3 in the divisional round in Foxborough before Manning and Indianapolis got a little revenge in the 2006 AFC Championship Game, earning a 38-34 comeback win in the Hoosier State.
"It's the Broncos versus the Patriots," said Manning when talking about the latest installment of the rivalry. "Certainly Tom and I have played against each other a lot. But when you get to the AFC Championship Game, it's about two good teams that have been through a lot to get there."
That's certainly true as both teams have overcome numerous key injuries to reach the top of the mountain of the AFC.
The Pats also had to endure the soap opera that is Aaron Hernandez, yet finished the regular season atop the AFC East at 12-4 and advanced to their 11th conference championship game with an emphatic 43-22 win over Manning's former team, Indianapolis, in the divisional round last week.
"It's special," said Patriots Pro Bowl special teamer Matthew Slater when talking about the team's season. "Every year it's special but this year we've been through so much. We've just found a way to rally around one another."
LeGarrette Blount rushed for 166 yards and a franchise-record four touchdowns against the Colts as New England reached its third straight AFC title game, the first team since the 2001-04 Philadelphia Eagles to go to at least three consecutive conference championship tilts.
Brady completed 13-of-25 passes for 198 yards, but was held without a touchdown pass as the night belonged to Blount, who rumbled 73 yards for a score early in the fourth quarter to give the Patriots a two-touchdown lead. Stevan Ridley, who also ran for two TDs, scored from a yard out less than two minutes later to seal the outcome in wet conditions at Gillette Stadium.
"I thought we had some balance there, production in both areas," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of his team's 234-yard rushing total and the play of Brady and his receivers.
The six rushing TDs were a franchise record for the Patriots in any game, regular season or playoffs, and was just one shy of the NFL postseason record of seven set by the 1940 Chicago Bears.
"A strength of ours all season has been how our running backs have played and the way our offensive line performs," Brady said.
The top-seeded Broncos, meanwhile, finished atop the AFC West this season at 13-3 and advanced to the AFC Championship Game for the first time in eight years by defeating San Diego, 24-17, last week.
The Chargers made a game out of it late when they cut a 17-0 deficit in the fourth quarter to seven points after two 16-yard touchdown catches by Keenan Allen -- posted around a Denver TD -- and a successful onside kick that led to a field goal with 3:53 remaining.
But, Manning completed two key third-down passes to tight end Julius Thomas and the Broncos picked up one more first down on their last drive to earn revenge for a 27-20 loss to San Diego in December.
Manning finished with 230 passing yards and touchdown passes to Demaryius Thomas and ex-Patriot Wes Welker, while Knowshon Moreno had a 3-yard touchdown run in between Chargers scores in the fourth quarter.
Denver, which is 19-17 all-time in postseason play and 6-2 in AFC Championship Games. is 27-20 all-time against New England, including a 2-1 mark in the playoffs. The Pats are 25-17 in the postseason and 7-3 in conference championship affairs.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The narrative of this game will center on Brady versus Manning, the two most decorated signal callers of this generation.
Each has enjoyed almost stunning efficiency throughout their respective careers. When they last met in the regular season, it was the first time in NFL history in which both signal callers were at least 90 games over .500 as starters. Brady currently has the best winning percentage in the modern era and is at plus-105 for his career (148-43) in the regular season while Manning is third overall in winning percentage and plus-94 (167-73).
"It's always a great matchup," Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said when talking about the two QBs. "You're talking about two of the premier quarterbacks in the league."
Some call Manning the best regular-season QB of all-time but hold his pedestrian postseason record (10-11) against him in any "greatest ever" discussions. Conversely, Brady's playoff success is often cited by observers who think he belongs in that rarified air.
When the Pats' signal caller hits the field in Denver, he will be playing in his eighth AFC Championship Game in 12 full seasons as a starter (not including 2008 when he was limited to just one game due to injury). Brady is 18-7 as a starter in the postseason, the most playoff wins of all-time, and already has three Super Bowl crowns.
After last week Manning now has 5,909 career passing yards in the postseason, second in NFL history to you guessed it, Brady (6,147).
"It's pretty well documented my respect for Tom as a quarterback," Manning said. "The way he prepares. The way he's better each season than the year before. Every time you play their football team, you're playing a well- coached, disciplined team."
The reality, of course, is Brady and Manning are not competing against each other and each QB will be facing defenses with plenty of holes.
Denver's best defensive player, rush linebacker Von Miller, went down with a torn ACL late in the regular season, and the Broncos suffered another big blow against the Chargers last week when starting cornerback Chris Harris suffered a torn ACL of his own.
Meanwhile, defensive end Derek Wolfe, who has not played since Nov. 24 due to seizure-like symptoms he experienced before Denver's Week 13 matchup at Kansas City, was also placed on IR this week.
Veteran Quentin Jammer replaced Harris against San Diego and struggled mightily while second-year player Malik Jackson has been overmatched at times while filling in for Wolfe.
Veteran Shaun Phillips has done a nice job as the team's top pass rusher and DT Terrance Knighton has been solid in the middle. The Denver linebackers, though, are built for speed and could have significant trouble with New England's power running game.
"There are definitely some differences in personnel, but you know they're going to have a good scheme," New England receiver Julian Edelman said. "They're going to spin the dial. It's the AFC Championship, so you know they're going to pull everything they have."
Offensively, the Pats lean on Brady and that solid running game. Brady didn't have one of his best statistical seasons but still passed for 4,343 yards and 25 touchdowns with Edelman (105 catches and 1,056 yards receiving) as his top target.
"It's a great achievement for our team," Brady said when talking about advancing to another AFC Championship Game. "There are only four teams standing. I know people have counted us out at times during this year but I think we have a locker room full of believers. Hopefully we can go out and play our best next week."
The deep New England backfield features a running-back-by-committee approach. Ridley and Blount combined for 1,545 rushing yards and 14 TDs, while Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden are also dangerous at times. It's basically who has the hot hand on gameday.
Against the Colts last week, Blount matched Ricky Watters as the only two players to score at least four touchdowns in a playoff game and also became the lone back in NFL postseason history to rush for at least 150 yards and four touchdowns in a game.
"I'm really confident," said Blount. "Those guys in front of me, the offensive line, they don't get tired. I'm not going to get tired either. So if we're going to be able to continue running the football like that throughout the playoffs, then I'll be happy with it."
The success of the Broncos' offense is directly tied to Manning's high-level of performance along with a stunning group of playmakers which includes Welker along with outside the numbers threats Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker as well as dynamic tight end Julius Thomas.
"Yeah, it's impressive," Pats safety Steve Gregory said when talking about Denver's playmakers. "You know, Decker, Thomas -- the two Thomases -- and then Wes. We know what Wes is. Wes is a great receiver. He does a heck of a job in the slot and they have spots they move him around to. So, we're going to have to be on top of our A game. We're going to have to narrow down our game plan this week and put in a good week of practice and play fundamentally sound, tackle well, do all those things that it takes to beat a great team."
Welker, of course, was Brady's top target for six seasons in New England, amassing 672 receptions and 37 TDs over that span while reaching the 1,000- yard plateau in five of those years.
"(Welker is) a tough guy so he's played through everything," Brady said.
The middle of the Pats D has been decimated by injuries with defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly as well as middle linebacker Jerod Mayo and safety Adrian Wilson lost for the season.
Belichick has done an amazing job making due with waiver-wire pickup Chris Jones and undrafted college free agent Joe Vellano up front but the strength of the New England defense has now shifted to the back end where cornerback Aqib Talib and free safety Devin McCourty are Pro Bowl-type talents.
The Chargers laid out the blueprint for beating Denver in the regular season, halting the Broncos' 10-game AFC West winning steak with a ball-control mentality, keeping it for nearly 39 minutes while converting 6- of-12 third downs opportunities.
"The longer you keep the ball and the less he (Manning) has it, the better off you're going to be," San Diego coach Mike McCoy said.
Expect Belichick to implement a similar plan against a team that averaged a stunning 37.9 ppg during the regular season and was held under 30 on just three occasions.
Adding even more intrigue to the matchup was the fact that cornerback Marquice Cole, who appeared in 13 games with the Patriots before being released on Dec. 26, was signed by the Broncos earlier this week.
"The Patriots have a great football team," said Demaryius Thomas. "They beat us a couple weeks back and our main focus is to see what they do to help them keep winning. We're going to work on it this week and hopefully come Sunday, we get the W."
Denver is an impressive 8-1 at home on the year and has outscored opponents 340-197 in those games. New England, however, is no ordinary opponent. Belichick won his 19th career postseason game to get here and is now one shy of Tom Landry for the most ever.
Whether he gets there or not will likely be tied to just how effective the Patriots' running game is.
"Every time we go out on the field we expect to win and we prepare to win," Belichick said. "It doesn't matter whether it's a regular season game, postseason game, whatever game it is. We take the same approach to every game. We expect to win and we prepare to win."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 27, Broncos 24
01/16 11:49:15 ET