The New England Patriots and Denver Broncos held the top two seeds in the NFL's 2012 AFC playoffs, signaling that at least during the regular season, the AFC was still all about Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
Though both teams were knocked off by the Baltimore Ravens, they still look like the class of the AFC once again, with a number of moves and counter-moves already this offseason that are still unfolding.
Wes Welker is an easy place to start as the most proven addition for either team. For a defense like the Patriots, who struggled covering the middle of the field, they'll have their work cut out for them stopping Welker.
Despite Welker's defection to Denver, it was really Denver's defense that needed the most help against New England.
Will the Patriots still be able to roll over the Broncos defense without Welker? That is the ultimate question of the offseason, and one that just might determine the AFC representative at the 2014 Super Bowl.
Broncos Defense No Match for Patriots Offense
The two teams have met three times in the past two seasons, and the Patriots offense has dominated John Fox's Broncos defense in each, piling up 117 points and 1,702 yards.
Is Denver's defense better suited to stop Brady in 2013?
It's hard to say that the addition of Dominique Rogers-Cromartie, another year of wear-and-tear on the soon-to-be 35-year-old Champ Bailey and the subtraction of Elvis Dumervil will help. Losing Dumervil is the most notable change for Denver, though he recorded just 10 tackles and one memorable sack in their last three meetings with the Patriots.
2012's game, won by the Patriots 31-21, was in many ways a signature win of the Patriots' season. The Patriots rattled off a franchise-record 35 first downs, with Wes Welker finishing the day with 13 catches for 104 yards on 15 targets.
Though the Patriots did most of their damage on the ground, with Stevan Ridley, Danny Woodhead and Brandon Bolden combining for 252 yards rushing, that was set up by their dominance in the passing game and their ability to keep Denver on their heels.
While the subtraction of Welker will have an impact on the Patriots offense, it's really been Aaron Hernandez (261 all-purpose yards in two games) and Rob Gronkowski (233 yards receiving, three touchdowns) who have had the biggest impact against the Broncos. In the last three matchups, Welker has 200 yards receiving and two touchdowns.
Turnovers Have Killed Peyton Manning vs. Pats D
Despite falling into a 31-7 hole with about five minutes left in the third quarter, Manning's game against the Patriots in 2012 was nearly perfect as he threw for 337 yards and three touchdowns for a 115.4 QB rating.
It was an inopportune fumble by Willis McGahee that stopped the potential comeback, but once Manning got a bead on the Patriots defense, he was pretty much unstoppable.
That has been a recurring theme for Manning against the Patriots in recent seasons. Since 2009, he's faced deficits of 17 points (2009), 17 points (2010) and 24 points (2012). He came back and won in 2009, and it took two game-sealing turnovers to end comeback attempts in other two.
In those three games, Manning has put up 49 fourth-quarter points on the Patriots combined.
No Patriots lead on Peyton Manning is safe, and with Welker now at his disposal, this will be even more true. Not to mention Demaryius Thomas, who has had 389 yards receiving in the last three Pats matchups.
However, the Patriots' own re-signing of Aqib Talib should put them in better position to deal with Thomas in 2013, and Kyle Arrington's familiarity with Welker should help prepare him to cover his former teammate.
One thing about Bill Belichick: He knows how to shut his former players down, but Welker with Manning could be the biggest test he's had.
While the Patriots offense should still move the ball on the Broncos without Welker, the game might come down to just how well their defense can deal with their old slot machine.
Regular-Season Game Could Decide AFC Championship Location
Though New England's receiver corps will likely look different in five months than it does now, it's hard not to think the gap between them and the Broncos has closed a bit. Despite the uncertainty at receiver, the Patriots will still have an explosive run game and their two-headed tight end monsters in Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.
As we saw in the playoff game against the Ravens, the Broncos can struggle with speed down the field, something the Patriots have lacked for numerous seasons. It's just one more reason the Pats must try to land a true X-receiver in the draft.
Defensively, the Patriots look better prepared to deal with Demaryius Thomas, but Welker will directly challenge their biggest weaknesses over the last three seasons.
The offseason is still far from over, but already the Patriots and Broncos appear on an AFC collision course in 2013. It was a decade ago that Brady and Manning first met in the AFC Championship. Brady won that one, while Manning won their second in 2006.
A possible rubber match in 2013, with Welker catching passes from Manning, might just be the most intriguing chapter of the Brady-Manning rivalry yet.
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