Peyton Manning leads the league's highest-scoring offense into a showdown with his old nemesis Tom Brady, who hasn't lit up the scoreboard but has guided his team to a nearly identical record with a balanced team.
Manning the statistical juggernaut; Brady the underdog. Manning with a bevy of weapons in the passing game; Brady with a more modest arsenal, but a running game that gets the job done.
The only thing missing is the horseshoe on the side of Manning's helmet.
|Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning|
|Sept. 30, 2001||IND @ NE||Colts -11.5||Patriots, 44-13|
|Oct. 21, 2001||NE @ IND||Colts -10.5||Patriots, 38-17|
|Nov. 30, 2003||NE @ IND||Colts -3.5||Patriots, 38-34|
|Jan. 18, 2004||IND @ NE||Patriots -3.5||Patriots, 24-14|
|Sept. 9, 2004||IND @ NE||Patriots -3.0||Patriots, 27-24|
|Jan. 16, 2005||IND @ NE||Patriots -1.0||Patriots, 20-3|
|Nov. 7, 2005||IND @ NE||Colts -3.0||Colts, 40-21|
|Nov. 5, 2006||IND @ NE||Patriots -2.5||Colts, 27-20|
|Jan. 21, 2007||NE @ IND||Colts -3.0||Colts, 38-34|
|Nov. 4, 2007||NE @ IND||Patriots -5.0||Patriots, 24-20|
|Nov. 15, 2009||NE @ IND||Colts -1.5||Colts, 35-34|
|Nov. 21, 2010||IND @ NE||Patriots -4.5||Patriots, 31-28|
|Oct. 7, 2012||DEN @ NE||Patriots -6.0||Patriots, 31-21|
|Nov. 24, 2013||DEN @ NE||Broncos, -2.5||Patriots, 34-31|
|Jan. 18, 2014||NE @ DEN||Broncos -6.0||?|
|Source: Pro Football Reference (playoff games highlighted)|
Manning's Colts were favored to win in their first three meetings with Brady's Patriots, with Brady winning each. Since then, Manning's teams have only been favored four times. The Patriots have been the underdog in seven of the 14 meetings between Brady and Manning; they are 4-3 in those games and 5-2 against the spread.
This is the first time the Patriots are an underdog in a playoff game since that AFC Championship loss to the Colts in the 2006-07 season, and this will be the eighth time Brady and the Patriots are underdogs against Manning and whichever team he's quarterbacking.
Don't let anything Brady says this week fool you—he's already acknowledged that his team is the underdog.
"I know at different times coach will make us aware of—I know when we played Baltimore nobody picked us to win. I'm sure no one's going to pick us to win this week," Brady said in an appearance on WEEI. "We've had our backs against the wall for a while, really the whole season. We've lost players. Teams have counted us out. We've got a bunch of underdogs on our team, and we'll be an underdog again."
The Patriots have been favored in all but two of their playoff losses over the past decade: against the Broncos (2005) and the Colts (2006).
Does being the underdog add anything to this game? Ask Brady for yourself:
Ignoring recency bias, it's hard to argue with him.
- This could be one of the last meetings between the two quarterbacks, specifically in the playoffs, more specifically with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. The stakes have never been higher as the windows for the two quarterbacks are shutting before our eyes.
- This would mark the first time since the 2006 season the Patriots have won a road playoff game, and the first time since the 2004 season the Patriots won the AFC Championship on the road.
- This would mark the second time in Manning's career he's set the NFL record for touchdown passes in a season and gone on to lose to the Patriots in the playoffs.
We'll talk about the two quarterbacks before, during and after the game, but when the Super Bowl's AFC representative has been decided, don't be shocked if a player other than Brady or Manning ultimately determines the outcome of the game.
Whether it's Willie McGinest after sustaining a knee sprain flying off the edge to make a key fourth-down stop, Reche Caldwell after dropping a pair of easy passes and subsequently looking like a deer in the headlights, Kevin Faulk after being stopped inches short (or was he?) on 4th-and-2, Willis McGahee after his fourth-quarter fumble or Tony Carter and Wes Welker after an overtime muffed punt; Brady and Manning dominate the narrative for the week leading up to the game, but other names always seem to seep into the headlines afterward.
That's even more likely this time around.
The last time these two teams met, Brady chucked it all over the field with 50 pass attempts, completing 34 of them for 344 yards and three touchdowns. With the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski—a key to the previous game, with seven catches for 90 yards and a touchdown—the Patriots have gotten back to being a more balanced team to take some of the pressure off Brady.
The result: Brady's numbers have been far from elite, but the offensive success rate has been nearly the same.
Maybe the Patriots saw a weakness in the Broncos defense that they felt like attacking when they had Brady air it out in the previous meeting, or maybe that was a product of falling behind 24 points in the first half. Either way, their best bet is to get the running game involved, and keep it going.
The Patriots have featured one of the most efficient offenses in the league regardless of how they're getting it done—and quite frankly, this offense has shape-shifted a great deal over the course of the season (and even in the short time since the last time they faced the Broncos) from one struggling to find its identity early in the season, to one that resembled the high-flying offense of recent years when Gronkowski returned, and now one that resembles the smash-mouth offense of years past.
In fact, the Patriots' 43-22 win over the Colts on Saturday was reflective of the "old school" Patriots in their purest form.
Brady went a modest 13-of-25 for 198 yards against the Colts on Saturday, but the ground game led the way with a team-record six rushing touchdowns in a game. Running back LeGarrette Blount tied a team playoff record with 166 rushing yards and set a team record with four rushing scores. The defense notched three sacks and four interceptions off Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, while stifling the Indianapolis running game to 69 yards on 21 carries (3.3 YPA).
That game is reflective of the Patriots' old battles with Manning.
This game has that same feel; between Manning's abundance of weapons, and Brady's lack thereof, this game could be a throwback in every sense of the word.
If the Patriots can take their old-school mentality with them to Denver, they could pull off the upset.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.