Everyone is billing the AFC Championship Game as a Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady showdown, but at the end of the game, the players who determine the AFC's representative in the Super Bowl won't be quarterbacks.
Manning and Brady will both be prepared and motivated to best each other, but the following players have X-factor written all over them.
Because of injuries, Moreno hasn't ever really had the type of breakout season a player of his athletic ability is capable of producing. The 2013 season was his best as he rushed for 1,038 yards and caught 60 passes from Manning to establish himself as a dual threat.
That could be an accurate assessment overall, but in the AFC title game, Moreno's worth will be second only to Manning. Denver needs a playmaker out of the backfield against the Patriots to slow down blitzes from the linebackers and safeties.
In the Broncos' crushing Week 12 loss to New England, Moreno had his biggest game of the season, rushing for 224 yards. Denver didn't hold on to its 24-point halftime lead, but Moreno's play was a big reason why it had the advantage.
Look for the Broncos to try to get him involved early and often in the rematch.
Over the last two games, Collins has looked like one of the most exciting young linebackers in the NFL. He is a task to block because of his athleticism, dexterity and motor. He also displayed great hands in pass coverage when he picked off an Andrew Luck pass in the second half of New England's 43-22 win in the divisional playoff round.
Collins had six tackles, a sack and the interception in the game.
When the Pats and Broncos last met, Collins hadn't entrenched himself in the starting lineup or regular rotation. Thanks to injuries to Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo, Collins is getting an opportunity to show what he can do.
Per Michael Whitmer of the Boston Globe, Patriots safety Devin McCourty said this about his teammate:
He does everything. He’s one of those freakish athletes that can do what we do as defensive backs as a linebacker.
Collins is the type of playmaker on defense that Manning will have to beware of as a pass-rusher and in coverage.
Robert Ayers/Nate Irving
When Von Miller went down with a torn ACL, the Broncos began using Ayers in Miller's role as a pass-rusher and Irving in the regular base formation sets.
Both Ayers and Irving must make themselves some measure of the disruptive force that Miller is when he's on the field.
Mike Klis and Joan Niesen of the Denver Post broke down Irving's role as Miller's replacement and the versatility the team loses without its injured star:
When he played, Von Miller could have been lined up as a linebacker or as a defensive end.
He might have rushed the passer from the right side or left side, or stunted from the middle. He might have faked a pass rush and dropped into coverage or started back in coverage and came in on a blitz.
There will be less tricks now that Nate Irving has replaced the injured Miller at strong side linebacker. The strong side means playing on the tight end's side. Ready, set, hit.
"Hit" is something Irving must do in the run game, because the Patriots are coming full steam ahead in that area.
If neither Irving nor Ayers steps up, the bulk of the burden to apply pressure on the right side of the defense falls on Shaun Phillips. Miller's replacements need to make their presence felt to improve Denver's chances of winning.
LeGarrette Blount has earned the right to be the feature back for the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. Over the last two games, Blount has 355 yards rushing and six touchdowns.
Because of Blount's success, you can bet the Broncos will be trying to key on him to slow the run game down. The Patriots have great depth in the backfield, and it begins with Ridley. He and Blount alternate series and it is possible Ridley will have the opportunity to catch the Broncos sleeping on defense.
The beauty of the Patriots' run game is that the defense doesn't get any breaks. New England is able to keep pounding its opponents. Don't be surprised if Ridley reminds people just how deep the Pats are at running back.
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