Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver, CO
When: Sunday, January 19, 3 p.m. ET (CBS)
Which Teams: New England Patriots (2) at Denver Broncos (1)
What to Know: There will be 90 other men dressed and ready to play football for the Broncos and Patriots on Sunday, but all week looking ahead—and possibly, all of our lifetimes looking back—will be about the two men playing quarterback.
It's Manning-Brady Bowl XV, the 15th matchup of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Though Brady started 11 playoff games before losing a single one, and Manning went one-and-done in each of his first three playoff seasons, the two have reached something like parity since then.
Brady has a 2-1 edge over Manning in the playoffs, but they're 1-1 in AFC Championship Games. If he and the Patriots triumph over Manning and the Broncos, it'll cement his legacy as Montana's heir, especially after he carried the Pats through the first half of the regular season.
Moreover, it'll be hard to see Manning rewriting the narrative that's prevailed over both their careers before both their careers end.
If Manning and the Broncos hold serve in Denver, he will finally have matched chart-busting regular-season production with clutch playoff play. After breaking the NFL single-season record for both passing touchdowns and yardage in 2013, a Super Bowl berth earned by beating Brady head-to-head would slay that dragon once and for all.
Oh, right! Those other 90 guys. Manning was quick to point to them in his post-victory press conference. "The game next week is the Broncos and the Patriots," Manning told James Brady of SBNation (via Philly.com). "It will be a battle between two good teams—teams that have been through a lot, have overcome a lot to get to this point and that's where my focus will be: trying to help the Broncos get a win against the Patriots."
The Broncos have paired the NFL's most prolific passing game with a more-than-credible run game. Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball spearheaded a rushing attack that had 1,873 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns this regular season; per Pro Football Reference, that ranked 15th- and eighth-best in the NFL, respectively.
They're helped by the Broncos offensive line, which, despite losing franchise left tackle Ryan Clady in the second week of the season, received Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) seventh-best run-blocking grades and second-best pass-blocking grades.
The Broncos' pilfering of Brady's favorite target, receiver Wes Welker, from the Patriots was one of the offseason's biggest stories—yet Welker's just been another quality cog in the Broncos offensive machine.
Welker finished with 73 catches for 778 yards and 10 touchdowns. That's impressive, but well behind the output of Demaryius Thomas (92, 1,430 and 14) and Eric Decker (87, 1,288 and 11). Moreno (60, 548 and three) and tight end Julius Thomas (65, 788 and 12) weren't far behind Welker, either.
If those numbers don't make it clear, there are an awful lot of Broncos the Patriots will have to cover.
Then again, the Patriots more or less did that in Week 12, holding Manning to just 150 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in a 34-31 overtime win over the Broncos in Gillette Stadium.
The Patriots have suffered heavy losses in the trenches, with defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly joining right tackle Sebastian Vollmer on injured reserve. Behind the defensive line, the Patriots lost outside linebacker Jerod Mayo in October and middle linebacker Brandon Spikes at the end of the season.
Despite big pressure on remaining starters like defensive end Rob Ninkovich and Donta' Hightower—not to mention unknowns like tackles Joe Vellano and Chris Jones—the Patriots cobbled together the NFL's 10th-best scoring defense on the season.
That's been due in large part to outstanding secondary play, led by All-Pro safety Devin McCourty, cornerback Aqib Talib and rookie corner Logan Ryan—who led the Pats with five interceptions.
It must be noted, though, that this defense suffocated Manning in the regular season partly by surrendering the run game. Moreno rolled for 224 of the Broncos' 280 rushing yards that night. The Patriots will have to do much better than that this time.
On the offensive side of the ball, Brady's had to deal with the aforementioned offensive line injuries, as well as a rotating cast of new targets. Without Welker, Brady's relied heavily on Julian Edelman; the 2009 seventh-round pick hauled in 105 catches for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns.
No other Patriots receiver had even 60 catches; pricey free-agent Danny Amendola came in second with 54 to go with his 633 yards and two touchdowns. Due to injuries that began and ended his season, star tight end Rob Gronkowski missed all but seven games. Incredibly, Gronkowski still finished third on the team in catches with 39.
Brady hoed a lonely row this season.
Behind him, though, the Pats have a strong running game. Their combined 2,065 rushing yards and 19 rushing touchdowns finished ninth and second in the NFL, respectively, per Pro Football Reference.
The twin-power-back attack of Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount led the way, with Ridley's 178 carries and Blount's 153 netting almost exactly the same yardage: 773 for Ridley, and 772 for Blount. They both scored seven touchdowns—but they both struggled with fumbles, too; Ridley dropped the ball four times, and Blount three. For a change of pace, Shane Vereen has more pass-catching ability and deep speed, but the young back has struggled to stay healthy.
All of this adds up to the third-best scoring offense in the NFL this season, per Pro Football Reference, behind only the Broncos and Bears.
Can the Broncos' 22nd-ranked scoring defense slow the Pats down?
That ranking might be a bit unfair; when a team's offense is putting up 37.9 points per game, its defense is going to allow a lot of garbage-time points. Pro Football Focus grades the Broncos (subscription required) as its sixth-best defense overall: positive in run-stopping, pass rush and pass coverage.
Led by defensive linemen Terrence Knighton and Malik Jackson, the Broncos defensive line is strong up front, if not fast off the edge. Most of the pass rush came from outside linebacker Von Miller, who suffered a torn ACL just before Christmas.
Jackson and end Shaun Philips have filled big shoes so far, though. The two combined with reserve end Jeremy Mincey to sack Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers five times in their Divisional Round matchup. Getting pressure on Brady without blitzing will be key to the Broncos finally getting over the hump.
Who Will Win: In the NFL, results are rarely "A plus B equals C," especially when it comes to multiple games between the same teams in the same season. That said, the Patriots needed an incredible rally, a Welker punt-return mistake and a little divine intervention to come back from a 24-0 deficit and beat the Patriots in overtime this season...and that was at home.
I like the Denver Broncos to finally cash in on two straight seasons of unquestioned AFC regular-season dominance and win 30-21.