How will Brady and Manning fare on Sunday?
Much like the previous 14 renditions, Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning XV is a star-studded affair.
Even with significant attrition on both sides, these two teams are the most talented squads in the AFC, and the quarterbacks only represent a fraction of the game's equation.
Both teams are similar in their general construction in that they possess high-powered offenses along with shaky defenses that have risen up in critical situations to manufacture a handful of game-changing plays. The offenses should move the ball consistently, but slowly, thus providing the defenses plenty of opportunities to alter the game's complexion with a single play.
While it's hard to predict when the offenses will blink, it's a bit more practical to forecast individual performances.
These teams are largely entrenched in their identities at this point, and we can pinpoint the players who will have the greatest impact on Sunday's result. Here, then, are stat projections for the most notable offensive and defensive stars on each side.
New England Patriots
Tom Brady: 21-for-29, 245 yards, 2 TDs
LeGarrette Blount: 15 carries, 58 yards, 1 TD
Rob Ninkovich: 7 tackles, 1 sack, 1 FF
It's jarring to say, but the Patriots are truly a running team at this point.
The Pats have called more runs than passes in each of their past three games, turning to a clock-control offense after Rob Gronkowski's season-ending injury.
Consequently, Tom Brady essentially throws two types of passes at this point: short screens and crossing routes to one of his diminutive slot receivers, or the occasional play-action seam route to Julian Edelman.
The result has been a high-efficiency passing game that does not produce many big plays, but moves the chains very well. Per Pro-Football-Reference.com, the Pats have converted 43.2 percent of their third downs over the past three games, a mark that would have ranked fifth in the league during the regular season.
While Brady should find success, however, LeGarrette Blount could see more resistance from a Broncos front that shut down San Diego's run-oriented game plan. As SB Nation's Kyle Montgomery illustrates, the return of defensive tackle Terrance Knighton has invigorated a Broncos front seven that could have collapsed in Von Miller's absence:
In particular, Knighton called out rookie teammate Sylvester Williams, asking him to play a larger role in filling Kevin Vickerson's shoes since the veteran DT was placed on Injured Reserve. The rookie responded in the season's final two weeks with three tackles for loss, a sack, and a fumble recovery in his two games since.
"Tremendous," Champ Bailey told Mason of Knighton. "I didn't know him before he got here, but just to be able to come in and figure out where he fits in and know his role, but also understand that he's a leader on this team. And we need him to be that."
If the Broncos stifle the Pats to two- and three-yard gains on first down, it will become increasingly difficult to trust Blount or the other running backs. New England cannot afford five three-and-outs, as they had against the Colts in the Divisional round, and hope to keep up with the Denver offense.
Defensively, perennially underrated playmaker Rob Ninkovich is the Patriots' most likely candidate to create a momentum-shifting play.
Ninkovich is stout in run support, but has also developed a reputation for creating timely sacks and forced fumbles. Look for him to get to Manning a couple times and give the Pats a boost.
Peyton Manning: 29-for-40, 310 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT
Knowshon Moreno: 22 carries, 89 yards, 1 TD
Shaun Phillips: 5 tackles, 1.5 sacks
The Broncos had tremendous success running the ball in the first meeting, gashing New England for 280 yards on 48 carries.
However, the Pats have since cracked down on the shotgun draws that terrorized the defense that night, Denver's best running play.
In truth, the Broncos run a lot of packaged plays—meaning that there are both pass and run calls built into a single play, allowing Peyton Manning to choose based on the defense's look.
The Pats have shown a tendency to try and take away the run on early downs after their midseason struggles, and Manning will not force the run if New England takes it away.
At the same time, while Manning should hit his usual high percentage of throws, the Pats have generally done a solid job of limiting the big plays.
According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, New England tightened up in the second half of the regular season, conceding just 22 pass plays of 20 or more yards. That was 10th-best in the league over that span, and stingier than either Denver or San Francisco among remaining playoff teams.
Manning will still get his touchdowns, especially considering Denver's prowess in terms of red-zone passing.
But look for him to keep the passes underneath, allowing his receivers to rack up the YAC. The Pats will gladly take the trade-off, as limiting yardage will force the Broncos into more frequent third downs and provide the defense an opportunity to get off the field.
Defensively, Shaun Phillips is Denver's best hope for a pass rush.
The Patriots did a generally exemplary job on All-Pro Robert Mathis last week, holding the Colts linebacker to a single sack. Mathis did generate a few pressures, however, and Phillips figures to get a few chances to change the game.