With the Denver Broncos hosting the New England Patriots for the AFC Championship on Jan. 19, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady will have their fourth playoff meeting. While they will dominate the headlines, the defenses have both been weakened by injury, and whichever one remains the most resilient will get a trip to the Super Bowl.
Despite Manning's unprecedented season of 55 passing touchdowns and 5,477 yards, the Broncos' ground game will be a focus against New England's decimated rush defense. On the other side, Denver's weak secondary could be assailed by Brady if the Pats abandon their new identity as a running team. Rather than Manning vs. Brady, the story of the game could be Knowshon Moreno vs. Tom Brady.
The Broncos were done in by some poor coverage from Rahim Moore in last season's playoffs as the Baltimore Ravens nipped them. Their pass defense struggled again this season, ranking 27th in yards allowed. To their credit, Denver's D was stout in beating San Diego 24-17 and allowing just 259 total yards.
But the Broncos got very bad news when they learned on Jan. 13 that starting cornerback Chris Harris had suffered a season-ending tear of his ACL in the playoff win over the San Diego Chargers, as first reported by Lindsay Jones of USA Today.
After Harris exited the game, Quentin Jammer got torched on a TD reception by Keenan Allen that let the Chargers back into the game. Harris led the defense in snaps played during the regular season and leaves a big hole in the secondary. The Broncos will have little choice but to lean on Champ Bailey, who was limited during the season by a foot injury.
In 14 career meetings between the future Hall of Fame QBs, Brady has won 10 times on the back of 26 touchdowns with 12 interceptions. Manning tossed 29 TDs, but 20 INTs, in those 14 games. With Denver's already weak pass defense further weakened by the loss of Harris, look for Brady to outproduce Manning once again, but that won't guarantee a New England victory.
They have only faced each other three times in the postseason, with Brady winning twice. Intriguingly, the winner of all three games went on to win the Super Bowl, and a win this year would at least guarantee a berth in the big game. The good news for Denver is that the home team won each of those meetings, and this season the only home loss was the 27-20 hiccup in Week 15 against San Diego.
When the Broncos visited New England on Nov. 24, they held a 24-0 lead at halftime before watching their defense yield 31 second-half points as the Pats prevailed in overtime 34-31. Weak defense down the stretch nearly felled the Broncos again in the divisional round, but they "held" the Chargers to 17 fourth-quarter points in the 24-17 victory.
In his Week 12 win, Brady (34-of-50, 344 yards, three TDs) once again outperformed Manning (19-of-36, 150 yards, two TDs, one INT). However, the Patriots had a healthy Rob Gronkowski in that game. Instead of preparing for the Broncos this week, Gronk will be having knee surgery, the eighth procedure of the 24-year-old's career.
Also, that game was a small blip in Peyton's stunning season. Manning smashed Brady's record for touchdowns passes in a season and set the yardage mark as well.
On the bright side for Denver, Brady has thrown just two touchdowns over his last three games and came in under 200 yards each time. The offense has undergone a sea change whereby Brady has thrown 26 passes or fewer in three straight games after throwing at least 40 in each of the previous five.
The Patriots stunned the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round with six rushing scores, four of them from LeGarrette Blount who has risen from the ashes like a phoenix running back. Blount has eight TDs in his last three games, plus 355 yards on 48 carries for a robust 7.4 yards per tote.
The Broncos boast the eighth-best run defense in the league and allowed just one 100-yard rushing performance. If the Pats try to emphasize the ground game again, they will not find the defense as accommodating as they did in the previous round.
By contrast, the Patriots run defense has been eviscerated by injuries to tackle Vince Wilfork (torn Achilles) and inside linebacker Jerod Mayo (torn pectoral), effectively losing the middle of the defense.
Obviously, the Patriots secondary will have a mammoth task in trying to contain Manning and his four options who hauled in at least 10 touchdowns apiece: Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas. But the real concern for New England will be stopping the Broncos rushing attack.
Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball totaled 134 yards between them last time out and more than doubled San Diego's rushing output. Moreno tallied 82 yards and what turned out to be the deciding touchdown in the fourth quarter of the divisional round.
The Patriots ranked 30th against the run during the regular season, and in their first game against Denver, Moreno ran wild for 224 yards on 37 carries with a touchdown.
While the Patriots only started running the ball with authority recently, the Broncos have been doing it all season. If the Pats even think about stacking the box against the run, Manning will do his "Omaha" thing and audible to a big-play route for one of his dangerous receivers.
Between the strength of the matchup and home-field advantage, look for Moreno to be Denver's MVP and help springboard Manning and the Broncos to Super Bowl XLVIII.
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