So it has come to this—Tom Brady and the New England Patriots will visit Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in the 2014 AFC Championship to determine which legendary player gets to advance to the Super Bowl.
Both Brady and Manning have been rather reliant on the talent around them as of late. They obviously must step up in perhaps the last time they'll meet in such a high-profile affair, but Brady and Manning must also rely on strong individual performances around them.
Whether it is a star who has emerged in recent weeks or one who absolutely disappeared in the Week 12 overtime thriller between these two, which New England won 34-31, there are a few players who rise above the rest as critical to the outcome of the rematch.
Montee Ball, RB, Denver Broncos
While not technically the starter in Denver, rookie Montee Ball needs to have the biggest impact for the Broncos in the AFC Championship.
The Wisconsin product has come on in recent weeks and has even performed better than starter Knowshon Moreno, as Tom Oates of the Wisconsin State Journal details:
He may have started slowly, but the past six games, Broncos rookie RB Montee Ball has outrushed starter Knowshon Moreno. #Badgers— Tom Oates (@TomOatesWSJ) January 13, 2014
Ball has slowly eased his way into more playing time in the last two weeks, notching 10 carries in each of his last two games, which he turned into 124 yards.
When these two teams met last, Ball's seven carries for 40 yards obviously paled in comparison to Moreno's 37 carries for 224 yards and a score.
Just do not expect the same output from Moreno once more. His performance has dipped as of late, and Ball is still on fresh legs just in time to greet the NFL's No. 30 ranked run defense, which allows an average of 134.1 yards per game.
LeGarrette Blount, RB, New England Patriots
Brady did not need to throw a touchdown pass in the divisional round of the postseason thanks to running back LeGarrette Blount, who carried the ball 24 times for 166 yards and four scores.
As ESPN's Adam Schefter illustrates, that was a bit of a historic performance:
Sorry Walter, Barry, RBs: LeGarrette Blount became 1st player in NFL history to rush for at least 125 yds and four TDs in a postseason game.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 12, 2014
The week prior, Blount also had 24 carries, which he turned into 189 yards and two scores in a Week 17 win against Buffalo.
Blount makes this list because his last two games have been outliers—he never received more than 16 carries all season while lost in a backfield that includes Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen.
Case in point—Blount received two carries and gained 13 yards the last time these two teams met. Denver defensive back Mike Adams says he has the recipe for stopping Blount once again, per Andrew Mason of the Broncos' website:
Adams, on defending LeGarrette Blount: "We're coming out and we're coming to hit him. We've got to lay some shoulder pads on him."— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) January 13, 2014
The AFC Championship is the time for Blount to prove his recent production has not been a fluke. Brady needs the help, especially with Rob Gronkowski out of the picture. If Blount can come through again, the Patriots will head to the Super Bowl.
Eric Decker, WR, Denver Broncos
Eric Decker has had a forgettable few weeks. He has a combined six receptions for 59 yards and a score in his last two games, including a divisional-round win over the San Diego Chargers.
That game was a nightmare for Decker. Bleacher Report's Ian Kenyon sums it up well:
Eric Decker: Dropped pass in endzone which was intercepted, dropped onside kick, tripped w/ clear path to endzone on punt return.— Ian Kenyon (@IanKenyonNFL) January 13, 2014
Ouch. The trip in question hurts to watch:
Decker was as invisible as his tackler above during his team's loss to New England earlier in the season—he caught one pass for five yards.
Believe it or not, Decker is actually Denver's second-leading receiver this year with 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns. The New England defense is a week removed from allowing 317 total passing yards as three receivers tallied more than 65 yards.
In other words, Decker has no excuse to not step up his game and help lead his team to the Super Bowl.