NFL Playoff Predictions: Battle for the AFC Will Come Down to Broncos vs. Pats

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NFL Playoff Predictions: Battle for the AFC Will Come Down to Broncos vs. Pats
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The Broncos and Patriots will meet again this season—in the AFC title game.

After the Houston Texans faltered down the stretch, it's now clear the battle for the AFC crown will involve the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots.

And so begins the latest episode of Peyton vs. Brady.

For most of the season, it appeared the Texans were the top dog in the AFC. Armed with a tough defense, one of the best running backs in the game, a rock-solid offensive line and a terrific quarterback-receiver duo, Houston was in the driver's seat.

Since the Patriots toppled the Texans 42-14 in Week 14, though, Houston has been more than vulnerable; it's been beatable. Three losses in four weeks have taken the wind out of its sails and affirmed the Broncos and Pats will be the teams to beat in the AFC.

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Anytime you have Peyton Manning or Tom Brady on your roster, that shouldn't be a surprise.

Manning's comeback season has been incredible, and No. 18 has taken the Broncos to new heights in his first season in a new uniform.

After a slow start, the future Hall of Famer has been on fire, displaying lethal chemistry with receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. Manning's on-field leadership and ability to diagnose defenses and make adjustments have transformed the Broncos offense from a run-first attack to an all-out aerial assault.

Defensively, the Broncos feature a pair of stud pass-rushers in Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. The two sack artists have combined for nearly 30 sacks this season, terrorizing opposing quarterbacks and disrupting the passing game.

New England has done a pretty good job neutralizing the pair in the past, but Miller and Dumervil are playing at a tremendously high level right now.

Denver's ability to put up points at such a high rate makes it a big-time threat in the playoffs against teams like the Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans, who aren't built to come from behind. Forcing those teams to throw would put the Broncos in a very favorable situation and would allow Miller and Dumervil to feast on the quarterback.

The only team that truly presents a matchup challenge for Denver is New England.

Bill Belichick's team has plenty of experience against the Broncos in the pre-Manning era, but it also came out on top earlier this year against the new-look Broncos.

Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
Stevan Ridley made everyone forget the loss of BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

With a prolific offense of their own, the Patriots have the rare advantage of being able to keep Manning off the field. Stevan Ridley has quickly developed into one of the league's top running backs, giving the Pats much better balance. Tom Brady still slings it like he's 25 and benefits from a wealth of receiving weapons around him.

New England's defense doesn't inspire a whole lot of confidence, especially against the machine-like Manning, so the key to beating the Broncos may come down to controlling the clock on offense with a mix of the run, play-action and a short, precise passing game.

The AFC certainly has a bright future with Andrew Luck and Andy Dalton already establishing themselves as two of the better young quarterbacks in the game. However, while playoff hopes are promising for the younger crop of AFC quarterbacks, this year's battle for the AFC crown comes down to the two best quarterbacks in the conference and two legends of the game. 

When the AFC championship game kicks off, the Broncos and Pats will face off to determine who continues on the road to the Super Bowl.

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