The New England Patriots and Denver Broncos are pretty evenly matched—their overtime game during the regular season proved that.
Tom Brady's Patriots rallied from a 24-0 halftime deficit and were gift-wrapped the clinching field goal when Tony Carter muffed a punt deep inside his own territory.
Can we break the proverbial tie between these AFC powerhouses if we break down each club position-by-position?
In the Week 12 meeting between these clubs, the Broncos offensive line absolutely manhandled a Vince Wilfork-less Patriots defensive front to the tune of 280 yards rushing on 48 carries.
A fumble-return touchdown by Von Miller and a 24-0 lead at halftime forced Denver to deviate from its normal pass-heavy offense and run the ball frequently.
Peyton Manning threw for only 150 yards, and he was sacked twice.
Despite the early-season loss of All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady, the Broncos' offensive line has held up rather well in both the pass-blocking and run-blocking departments.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Manning dealt with pressure on the lowest percentage of his dropbacks (22.7 percent) among quarterbacks who played at least 50 percent of their respective teams' offensive snaps this season.
Sure, his quick decision-making and rapid release need to be considered, but having the lowest pressure percentage in the league is almost always a testament to a sound offensive line.
According to PFF, in the regular-season loss to New England, Manning was pressured on only nine of his 38 dropbacks.
While the Patriots certainly can get after the quarterback—they finished with 48 sacks on the year, the fourth-most in football—the Broncos' offensive line and Manning's decisive nature win this matchup.
Manning's regular-season performance against the Patriots was an odd one, an outlier of sorts.
Three fumbles on New England's first three possessions led to a rather easy 17-0 lead for Denver, and the Broncos employed a run-heavy attack.
Knowshon Moreno gashed the Patriots for 224 yards on 37 carries, but New England was able to rally from a 24-0 halftime deficit in the second half, a comeback that was aided by a Logan Ryan interception of Manning in the early stages of the fourth quarter.
We can't expect the Patriots to turn the ball over as frequently in the AFC Championship Game as they did in Week 12, but we can't envision Manning throwing for only 150 yards, either.
The likely NFL MVP should have little trouble throwing on the Patriots secondary, an improved yet occasionally vulnerable unit.
Even with the 150-yard dud against New England, Manning still averaged 342.3 passing yards per game in 2013 and 352.6 passing yards per home game.
Bill Belichick knows Manning very well, and a monstrous performance is somewhat unlikely, but it's hard to not give the edge to "The Sheriff" against any secondary, especially this season.
Knowshon Moreno proved to be one of the most versatile backs in the league in 2013. He racked up 1,038 yards on the ground and 548 yards receiving.
His backfield mate, rookie Montee Ball, averaged 4.7 yards per carry.
The Patriots likely haven't forgotten Moreno's Week 12 6.1 yards-per-carry explosion.
Without Vince Vilfork, Jerod Mayo and run-plugging extraordinaire Brandon Spikes, the Patriots should be relatively soft up the middle against the Broncos.
Moreno couldn't get going against the San Diego Chargers in the divisional-round victory, but Ball carried the ball 10 times for 52 yards.
With New England likely focusing most of its defensive game plan on the Broncos' aerial attack, Moreno and Ball could be in for big performances, just like the last time they played the Patriots.
This is, arguably, the most interesting, tightly contested battle of the AFC Championship Game.
Demaryius Thomas may not be the sharpest route-runner in the league, and he's not necessarily asked to run a diverse set of routes, but the former first-round pick is a yards-after-the-catch stud, and he can shield smaller defenders away from the football with his 6'3'', 230-pound frame.
Welker's the same chain-moving nuisance for opposing secondaries, and Decker, though not very consistent, had 87 receptions for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2013.
The most frightening matchup might be tight end Julius Thomas, a 6'5'', 250-pound former basketball player with deceptive agility and the speed to run the seam and work wonders in the red zone.
With Devin McCourty, PFF's top-rated pass-coverage safety this season, five-interception rookie Logan Ryan, the ultra-aggressive Aqib Talib and heady veteran Steve Gregory, the Patriots actually match up relatively well with the Broncos.
Rookie strong-side linebacker, Jamie Collins, who intercepted an Andrew Luck pass down the seam in the divisional-round win, will factor into New England's pass-coverage plans as well.
In the end, though, Denver's quartet of Demaryius, Julius, Welker and Decker gives the Broncos the nod.
Even with Sebastian Vollmer out with injury, unsurprisingly, the Patriots offensive line has remained dominant, especially in the run game.
Though it graded in the middle of the pack in Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) collective offensive line rankings during the regular season, it's paved the way for a ground-game outburst over the past month.
In New England's past three games—at Baltimore, vs. Buffalo and vs. Indianapolis—it's rushed 123 times for 643 yards with 10 scores.
However, the Patriots don't necessarily struggle to keep Brady upright, and their run-game superiority gives them the nod in this category.
Per PFF, Tom Brady was pressured on only 32.6 percent of his dropbacks in 2013, the seventh-lowest figure among signal-callers who took at least 50 percent of their respective teams' snaps.
In the Week 12 win over the Broncos, Brady was only pressured on 15 of 53 dropbacks.
Without Von Miller flying off the edge, bulkier defensive linemen Malik Jackson, Terrance Knighton and Robert Ayers are Denver's most proficient pass-rushers.
While the Broncos trio can hold its own, Ayers led the group with 46 quarterback pressures (sack, hit or hurry) in 2013. In comparison, Rob Ninkovich had 68 quarterback pressures, and Chandler Jones had 66 quarterback pressures this year.
Tom Brady didn't have one of his best seasons in the NFL, but he certainly wasn't bad in 2013.
With Chris Harris out with a torn ACL, the Broncos will be forced to used the elderly cornerback duo of Champ Bailey and Quentin Jammer more than they'd like.
Both were stars in the primes of their careers—heck, Bailey's a seven-time All-Pro—but Bailey and Jammer have slowed considerably into their 30s.
Brady shredded Denver's secondary in the furious Week 12 win, going 34-of-50 for 344 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Then again, Rob Gronkowski was available in that game—he caught seven passes for 90 yards with a touchdown.
New England will likely dedicate itself to the run, but we can't envision Brady having an exceptionally difficult time accumulating yards through the air against Denver's secondary.
The aforementioned Terrance Knighton and Malik Jackson are the most well-rounded interior defensive linemen in the AFC Championship Game.
Both ranked in the top 12 of PFF's defensive tackle rankings during the regular season.
However, LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley have combined for 611 yards on 105 carries over the past three outings.
The two backs would be categorized as between-the-tackle power runners, which makes for a tremendous matchup with Knighton and Jackson, two of the better run-stuffers in the AFC.
Wesley Woodyard isn't exactly a thudding inside linebacker; however, Danny Trevathan graded out as PFF's No. 13 run-stopping 4-3 outside linebacker in 2013.
As a whole, though the Patriots' offensive line should be able to win its trench battle against the Broncos' defensive line, the matchup between New England's running backs and Denver's front seven is a push.
Though Danny Amendola was thought to be the Wes Welker replacement for the Patriots, Julian Edelman was the wideout who actually fit into that role perfectly this season.
Among receivers who played at least 50 percent of their respective team's snaps, Edelman led the league with a 71.9 percent catch percentage in 2013, according to PFF. Eight of Amendola's 54 receptions with the Patriots went for 20-plus yards, and his 65.9 percent catch percentage was respectable.
Beyond that, New England's pass-catching unit is relatively nonexistent.
Without Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, the tight end position has vanished from the Patriots' offensive game plan.
Michael Hoomanawanui led all New England tight ends with 12 receptions for 136 yards and one touchdown this year.
Are Edelman and Amendola good enough to consistently beat Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Champ Bailey and Quentin Jammer?
The Patriots will be able to get their nimble wideouts open on a variety of screens and slants over the middle.
These matchups support the idea that these two teams are exceptionally similar. The Broncos have the edge in four categories, and the Patriots have the edge in three categories, while one category's a push.
Bill Belichick would win the coaching matchup, but the Broncos have the home-field advantage.
Remember, Tom Brady hasn't played a true road playoff game since the 2006-07 AFC Championship Game in Indianapolis against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.
The Broncos' passing game and the Patriots' running game will make the difference, although it'll be intriguing to monitor how New England moves through the air against Denver without cornerback Chris Harris in the lineup.
We'll be in for a tight one.
Broncos win, 35-31.