The New England Patriots and Denver Broncos both took care of business in the divisional round to set up another meeting between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. It's a rematch of a wild Week 12 game, which saw the Patriots win in overtime.
While the hype will surround the legendary quarterbacks for most of the week—which isn't a surprise since it could be the last time they meet on this stage—the other players will likely decide the game.
It's a pretty even matchup overall and one or two key moments are going to decide it once again.
With that in mind, let's examine the biggest key for each team in the AFC Championship Game. The side that executes better in these areas will punch its ticket to MetLife Stadium to face off with the Seattle Seahawks or San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl.
Patriots: Keep Focus on Running Game
The biggest news to emerge from the divisional round for either team was Denver's loss of cornerback Chris Harris to an ACL injury. He was easily the team's most effective corner this season and the Broncos' secondary is vulnerable without him.
In fact, ESPN Stats & Info points out that opposing quarterbacks saw their QBR more than double when Harris was on the sideline this season:
In 990 snaps with Chris Harris on the field, DEN allowed a 43.6 QBR. In 81 snaps with Harris on the sideline, DEN allowed a 93.0 QBR— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 13, 2014
While that's good news for Brady, who didn't really need it after throwing for 344 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions on 50 attempts in the teams' first meeting, it doesn't mean the Patriots should get away from what was so effective last week.
Led by LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley, New England pounded out 234 yards and an eye-popping six touchdowns on the ground to knock off the Indianapolis Colts.
A similar game plan with anywhere near as much success is also the best way to beat the Broncos.
Which team will win the AFC title game?
Given their defensive shortcomings, especially without Harris, the Broncos would have no problem letting this game become a shootout. A high-scoring game with plenty of possessions for both sides would actually play right into their hands because of all the weapons at Manning's disposal.
New England's best chance to win remains attacking the Broncos on the ground with its multifaceted ground game. The longer the Patriots can keep Manning and Co. on the sideline, the better their chances of emerging with the win on the road.
Harris' absence will still come into play. Instead of causing the Patriots to change their plan of attack, however, it just makes Brady's job easier on those key throws on third down and in the red zone.
Broncos: Protect the Football
When these two teams met in November, the Broncos led 24-0 at halftime. Despite the fact that the Patriots have an all-time great quarterback and a coaching staff capable of pulling all the right strings at halftime, the only way they were getting back into the game was Denver mistakes.
Sure enough, a lost fumble by Montee Ball, an interception by Manning and an overexposed defense allowed the Patriots to erase the deficit and take the lead early in the fourth quarter.
Denver had a chance to score a big win and let it slip away with too many mistakes.
After the game, Gray Caldwell of the Broncos' official site passed along comments from Manning, who talked about learning from the errors the team made in New England:
I think that’s the test of good football teams. I think it would be wrong if guys weren't disappointed and bothered by this loss. So, I think you’re allowed a night and maybe half a day tomorrow to still be ticked off about it and disappointed. That is part of being a professional, to learn from it, study the film and learn from the coaches.
Two months later, it's time to find out if Denver did learn from those mistakes, which included five fumbles—three of which were lost—and an interception.
Assuming the Patriots stick with a run-oriented approach to limit the number of possessions, the Broncos' margin for error will be extremely thin. Whether it's Manning or the players he's getting the ball to, they must protect the ball at all costs.
One turnover in the second half is likely to turn this game one way or the other—it's just that close of a matchup. Two months ago, the Broncos built a big lead and then wilted under the pressure as New England mounted a comeback.
Manning wanted the team to learn from that game. Now it's time to find out if it did.