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AFC Championship Game Preview and Prediction: New England Patriots vs. Denver Broncos

Peyton Manning

Peyton Manning

It’s No. 1 vs. No. 2 when the Denver Broncos host the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game at 3 p.m. ET on CBS. John Fox’s Broncos (14-3) erased last season’s playoff disappointment by beating the Chargers in the Divisional Round, presenting Peyton Manning with a shot at getting back to the Super Bowl. The Patriots (13-4) ran roughshod over the Colts last week and need just one more win for their sixth Super Bowl appearance in the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era.

Besides this representing the 15th head-to-head matchup between future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, this also serves as a rematch of the teams’ Week 12 showdown. That game was won 34-31 by the Patriots in overtime in Foxboro and was one of the more thrilling contests during the regular season. The Broncos are hoping for a different result at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, where they have gone 8-1 this season.

5 Things to Watch

Brady-Manning Bowl XV
Let’s just go ahead and get this one out of the way shall we? Any informed football fan knows that this will be the 15th head-to-head encounter of two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Tom Brady holds a comfortable 10-4 edge over Peyton Manning in these games, including a 2-1 mark in the playoffs. This also represents the third time that Brady and Manning will meet in the AFC Championship Game, a feat that has happened just three other times since the NFL-AFL merger of 1970. They have split the title game matchups, with Brady winning in the 2003 playoffs at home and Manning returning the favor in ’06. Both times the winner of the AFC Championship Game went on to win the Super Bowl and be named the MVP. From a numbers standpoint, Brady has performed much better in their postseason encounters than Manning. Brady has completed 61 of 98 passes (62.2 percent) for 613 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions along with a rushing score. Manning has connected on 77 of his 136 attempts (56.6 percent) for 824 yards, but just two touchdowns compared to six picks. He also has scored on the ground. As far as this game goes, Manning will enjoy the comfort of playing at home and he’s also coming off of the most prolific regular season of any quarterback in NFL history. Manning has five different targets who have caught at least 60 passes this season, while Brady has just one. He also won’t have tight end Rob Gronkowski, who played a big part in the Patriots’ regular-season win over the Broncos, to throw to. Neither Brady nor Manning put up huge numbers last week, but any informed football fan knows well that No. 12 and No. 18 will have plenty to say in the outcome of this afternoon’s game before all is said and done.

What Happened Back in November
It was a tale of two completely different halves when Denver traveled to New England for a Week 12 primetime showdown. The Broncos sprinted out to a 17-0 first-quarter lead behind a 60-yard fumble return by Von Miller and a short Knowshon Moreno touchdown run. Peyton Manning stretched that lead to 24-0 with a touchdown pass to Jacob Tamme in the second quarter. Seemingly down for the count, the Patriots responded with a touchdown on the opening possession of the second half and then scored again after recovering a Montee Ball fumble in Denver territory. Tom Brady found Rob Gronkowski in the end zone on their next possession to cut the lead to just three points headed into the fourth quarter. An interception of Manning set the Patriots up deep in Broncos’ territory once again and Brady connected with Julian Edelman three plays later to make it 28 unanswered points by the home team. A Stephen Gostkowski field goal staked New England to a seven-point lead before Manning and the Broncos responded with a 13-play, 80-yard drive that culminated with a Demaryius Thomas touchdown catch and a tie game with 3:06 remaining. Neither team got into scoring range after that, sending the game into overtime. In the extra period, both teams struggled to sustain drives turning the game into a battle of field position. That was until the Patriots punted with a little more than three minutes on the clock. With former New England star Wes Welker awaiting the Ryan Allen punt, the kick landed short and hit the Broncos’ Tony Carter. The Patriots fell on the ball at the Denver 13-yard line and Gostkowski sent the home crowd happy one play later with a game-winning 31-yard field goal, completing the improbable comeback. Brady torched the Broncos’ defense, especially in the second half, for 344 yards and three touchdowns, while Manning was held to season lows in both yards (150) and completion percentage (52.8) with two touchdowns and an interception. Knowshon Moreno picked up the slack and then some, rushing for a career-high 224 yards and a score on 37 carries, but Denver’s season-high 280 yards rushing weren’t enough to hold off Brady and overcome four turnovers. Once again, Manning came up short against Brady and Bill Belichick, as the Patriots got to within one game of the Broncos for the top spot in the AFC.

Denver’s Defensive Depth
After the disappointing loss in New England, Denver bounced back to win four of its final five games to claim the AFC West title and No.1 seed in the playoffs. Unfortunately, the Broncos have lost two key pieces of their defense in getting to this point. All-Pro linebacker Von Miller, who opened the scoring in the first game against the Patriots with a fumble return for a touchdown, tore his ACL in the Week 16 win in Houston, ending his season. After missing the first six games due to suspension, Miller returned and helped reinvent a Denver defense that had been struggling some without him. In nine games, Miller registered five sacks and forced three fumbles, and his absence puts even more pressure on starting linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan, as well as defensive end Shaun Phillips, the Broncos’ main pass-rushing threat. As bad as Miller’s injury was, the bigger blow could end up being the loss of cornerback Chris Harris, who tore his ACL in last week’s win against San Diego. Up until his injury, Harris had played the most snaps of any Denver defender and his importance can’t be overstated. According to ESPN Stats & Information, when Harris was on the field the Broncos allowed a QB Rating of 43.6. When he was not on the field, that number ballooned to 93.0. Harris’ absence has resulted in some shuffling in Denver’s defensive backfield. Champ Bailey, who has played in just six games this season because of a foot injury, is expected to slide over to take Harris’ spot at cornerback. Veteran Quentin Jammer got the call last week, but struggled trying to contain San Diego rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen, who caught two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter. The team also signed former Patriot Marquice Cole this week to shore up its cornerback depth. Tom Brady had his way with Denver’s pass defense in the first game (344 yards, 3 TDs) and the Broncos’ secondary will definitely have its work cut out this afternoon with Harris sidelined.

New England’s Next Man Up
If there’s any silver lining to the challenge facing Denver’s patchwork defense, it’s that it won’t have to worry about All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski. In the first game, Gronk caught nine passes for 90 yards and a touchdown, but his injury-plagued season came to an abrupt end in December when he tore his ACL in Week 14 against Cleveland. Michael Hoomanawanui has taken over as the starting tight end, but he is nowhere near the factor in the passing game (12 rec., 136 yds., TD) that Gronk was. On the other side of the ball, New England’s defense has been devastated by key injuries, as All-Pros Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork, along with starters Tommy Kelly and Adrian Wilson all went down before the Patriots even hosted the Broncos in Week 12. New England lost another starting linebacker before the playoffs started when Brandon Spikes went on injured reserve because of a knee injury. Spikes had nine tackles in the first game against Denver and had replaced Mayo as the leader of this unit. Now that role falls to second-year man Dont’a Hightower, who along with rookie Jamie Collins and veteran Dane Fletcher, man the middle for the Patriots. Fortunately, this group played very well, in particular Collins, in last week’s win against Indianapolis, but going up against Peyton Manning and the NFL’s No. 1 offense at home represents an entirely different challenge.

Gaining Ground or Running in Place?
Back in Week 12, Denver rushed for a season-high 280 yards with Knowhson Moreno picking up 224 of those. New England had 116 yards on the ground, but still won the game in overtime thanks to Tom Brady’s right arm and one timely turnover. Since that game, the Broncos have relied less on the running game, while the Patriots have leaned heavily on theirs. Denver has averaged 25.8 rushing attempts over its last six games, including 34 in its win over San Diego. New England has carried it 32.2 times per game over the same span, highlighted by the 46 attempts last week against Indianapolis. The main catalyst behind the Patriots’ running game has been LeGarrette Blount. After posting just two carries for 13 yards against the Broncos, Blount has averaged 15.8 attempts over the last five games and has totaled 355 yards and six rushing touchdowns in his last two contests alone. As good as Moreno and Blount have been, they aren’t the only productive ball carriers in their respective backfields either. Denver’s Montee Ball is averaging 6.3 yards per carry over his last six games, while Stevan Ridley led New England in rushing during the regular season and had two rushing touchdowns last week. The Broncos have done a good job against the run this season and limited the Chargers to just 65 yards on the ground last week, but this defense will be missing three key run-stoppers this afternoon in linebacker Von Miller, defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson and cornerback Chris Harris. The Patriots’ defense is equally thin up front without defensive linemen Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly as well as All-Pro middle linebacker Jerod Mayo. This is a big reason why this unit struggled to stop the run during the regular season (134.1 ypg, 30th in the NFL). New England’s defense did hold Indianapolis to just 69 yards rushing last week, but an early 14-0 lead had a lot to do with the Colts throwing the ball 41 times compared to just 21 rushing attempts. Hall of Fame-bound quarterbacks aside, this game could end up being won or lost in the trenches.

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New England Key Players: Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower, LBs
If healthy, the Patriots’ top linebackers are All-Pro Jerod Mayo and running mate Brandon Spikes. Unfortunately, Mayo played in just six games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury while Spikes joined him on injured reserve (knee) the week after the regular season ended. With these two sidelined, the middle of the defense will most likely be manned by Collins and Hightower (right), who both got the start in the first game against Denver. A rookie, Collins was the team’s second-round pick in April and recorded a season-high 10 tackles in the Week 12 win over the Broncos. He had an even bigger impact last week when he picked up his first career sack and interception against the Colts. Hightower was the 25th overall player taken in the 2012 NFL Draft and finished as the team’s leading tackler with 97 stops in the regular season. He also picked off Andrew Luck last week and has stepped up his game in the absence of Mayo and Spikes. If the Patriots stick with their five-defensive back alignment this afternoon against Denver, Collins and Hightower figure to have their hands full yet again. Not only with run support, but also in pass coverage as the Broncos use a lot of screens in their passing game and also like to employ their running backs as receivers out of the backfield. The duo of Collins and Hightower held up quite well the first time it faced off against Peyton Manning and company. Can the tandem do so again, this time on the road and with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line?

Denver Key Player: Wes Welker, WR
Peyton Manning isn’t the only Bronco who enters this game with something to prove. Tom Brady’s favorite target in his six seasons with New England, Welker went 0-2 in Super Bowls with the Patriots. To see if the third time’s the charm, Welker first has to beat his former team, something that didn’t happen back in Week 12. In that game, Welker’s contributions as a receiver were limited to just four catches for 31 yards He also returned two punts for a modest 13 yards, but it was the one he didn’t catch that ended up being the biggest play of the game. After forcing New England to punt with a little more than three minutes to go in overtime, Welker didn’t try to field Ryan Allen’s kick, which bounced well short of where Welker was standing. Welker waved his hands to signal his teammates to stay away from the ball, but Tony Carter either didn’t get the message or simply lost track of where the ball was, as it bounced up and hit him. The Patriots pounced on the live ball deep in Denver territory and won the game two plays later on a short field goal. After the game, Welker accepted the blame for not communicating properly to his teammates. Whether Welker ends up returning punts this afternoon remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt he’s itching to redeem himself on the field this afternoon.

Final Analysis

While this may be a rematch of their regular-season meeting, don’t be a bit surprised if this game ends up looking very little like the one that took place back on Nov. 24. For one, the venue is different with Denver being the home team. Outside of San Diego, no team has been able to slow down the Broncos’ offense at home.

Another reason is it was quite cold that night in Foxboro, Mass., which not only impacted the players (total of six lost fumbles), it also caused both the game and play clocks to go out at one point early on. The forecast for this afternoon calls for temperatures to be comfortably in the mid to upper 50s. Then there’s the matter of some key players who won’t be playing today, such as All-Pros Rob Gronkowski and Von Miller as well as key defenders Chris Harris and Brandon Spikes.

The Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning angle is without a doubt one of the main storylines for this game, as the former is looking to maintain his head-to-head success against No. 18 while the latter is looking for a measure of redemption following the greatest statistical season produced by a quarterback in NFL history. And with neither defense anywhere close to full strength, both signal-callers should get their share of scoring opportunities, especially if their ground games are clicking.

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And in the end, I think this game will come down to which team fares better in the running game, on both sides of the ball, compared to what happens under center. Although the Patriots have been running over people with ease lately, I think they will find the yards a little tougher to come by against a motivated Broncos defense. Denver’s running game can be productive in its own right, and look for Manning to make the right audibles at the line to take advantage of a depleted New England defense that finally feels the pinch of a stretched depth chart.

Brady may still hold a sizable edge on the overall scorecard, but when Round 15 comes to an end, Manning will be the one holding the Lamar Hunt Trophy aloft.

Denver 27, New England 24