The New England Patriots and Denver Broncos meet for the second time in three years in the AFC Championship Game with the winner moving on to Super Bowl 50!
While this will be the 17th time Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have faced off, the two teams look a lot different than they did Week 12. The Patriots especially will have a number of key players back this time around, including important wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, along with linebacker Jamie Collins, The Pats also lost Dont'a Hightower and Rob Gronkowski over the course of the last game in Denver, which contributed to the Broncos' come-from-behind victory.
New England still has a number of walking wounded who are fighting through injuries, but Bill Belichick's team is healthy as it's been since the Patriots started the season 10-0 before things started to fall apart in Denver.
For the Broncos they're back with Manning at quarterback, as Brock Osweiler was the signal-caller that orchestrated the Week 12 comeback. Though Manning continued to look shaky in the divisional round against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he did enough to help the Broncos pull out another late win. The Broncos still have two of the best wide receivers in the NFL in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, along with a strong two-headed running attack that is tough to stop when it gets rolling.
There are the two best teams in the AFC, and with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, both will empty their respective tanks Sunday afternoon. It should be a fantastic game with historic implications that will be discussed for decades.
AFC Championship Game: New England at Denver
Kickoff: 3:05 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Patriots -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Denver Stop Edelman and Gronkowski?
The Patriots have not lost to the Broncos when Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski are both in the lineup (4-0) and last week against the Chiefs it looked like each was their same old self against the Chiefs. Meanwhile, the Broncos were systematically attacked in the middle of the field by the Steelers, likely the same place the Patriots will deploy Edelman and Gronkowski. The Broncos must come up with an answer for the dynamic duo because if Tom Brady gets in sync with them, getting the ball out under two seconds, Denver's pass rush will be completely neutralized. The Broncos' defense must take away those initial reads, force Brady to hold the football and allow the unit's vaunted front seven to go to work on taking him out of rhythm.
2. How Effective Will Hightower and Collins be?
The Patriots' defense without linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins is a far different beast than it is with both of them. Both have injury issues going into this one, but both are expected to play. How effective they are, especially against Denver's ground game is a huge key. Once Denver got the running game going in Week 14 the Broncos' offense started rolling and that was directly related to Hightower's exit due to injury. If New England can snuff out Denver's zone running scheme the pressure will be put on Peyton Manning to complete downfield passes, certainly not his strength at this point. Hightower and Collins are the keys to everything the New England defense needs to do in this one and their health/playing level is of paramount concern.
3. One More Brady-Manning for the Ages
Brady and Manning have never actually played against each other, but they have started 16 games when their teams have faced off, with Brady holding a commanding 11-5 edge. But in the playoffs, this series is split 2-2 with Manning coming out victorious in each of the last two meetings — the 2006 (when he was with Indianapolis) and '13 AFC Championship Games. Each time the home team has won. Brady's already had two seasons end in the Mile High City, including his first-ever playoff loss in 2005. These are two of the all-time greats and this could very well be their last time competing on the same field. If nothing more we should appreciate these two Hall of Famers and hope that it's the kind of great showing both are worthy of.
Related: Ranking All 16 Manning-Brady Bowls
The Patriots are favorites on the road after looking sharp and rejuvenated against the Chiefs. The Broncos still have the top-ranked defense in the league, but Peyton Manning's limitations are obvious now. For New England, the Patriots must simply play a clean game and finish drives with touchdowns. For the Broncos, they must find an answer to stopping Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman and get their running game going to take the pressure off of Manning from having to rely extensively on his arm.
Bill Belichick is the greatest coach of all time at taking away what an offense does best, and now, as long as he has his full defense at his disposal, Denver's offense should be neutralized for large parts of the game. Denver has lived on the edge all season, often needing late turnovers to help dig itself out of multiple holes. For the Broncos to win, the game must unfold very specifically. They can no longer hope that Manning can go toe-to-to with Tom Brady throwing the ball 40-plus times. If the Patriots are on their game, they'll win.