Patriots vs. Broncos: Stars Who Must Step Up in 2014 AFC Championship Game

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Patriots vs. Broncos: Stars Who Must Step Up in 2014 AFC Championship Game
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The NFL's biggest stars have a penchant for shining the brightest under the heavy pressure of playoff football. 

The upcoming AFC Championship Game featuring the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos will likely come down to the wire. Both teams could easily win the contest, meaning the outcome will likely be decided based on which team's stars come through in the clutch. 

However, there are a few such stars who haven't exactly been playing their best ball of late. But with just one game left—a do-or-die scenario, at that—they must come through with a stellar performance in order to secure victory for their respective teams. 

 

Eric Decker, WR, Denver Broncos

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

When Eric Decker is hot, he's really hot. But when he's not, he's really not. 

Decker showed up for the divisional round against San Diego as the "not" version of himself, catching just two passes for 32 yards.

Even worse, he made two huge blunders in the contest: He first tripped on his own feet on a punt return that should have gone for a touchdown and later botched an onside-kick recovery late in the fourth quarter.

Bleacher Report via CBS Broadcast

Decker also failed to make an impact in Denver's regular-season loss to New England, catching one pass for five yards. Peyton Manning only managed to throw for 150 yards in that game, and he'll be in danger of struggling again in this upcoming matchup without a better showing from his receiver. 

The receiver recently discussed the challenge of facing the Patriots, as noted by the Associated Press, via the Boston Herald:

This is going to be a challenge for us and we want to know where we're at as a football team. When you play such a good, consistent team you find out a lot about yourself and I think that's what we're looking forward to Sunday.

If Decker can produce a big game on Jan. 19, then the Broncos have an excellent chance of winning.

 

Danny Amendola, WR, New England Patriots

The Patriots let Wes Welker walk via free agency this past offseason and signed Danny Amendola to be his replacement. Unfortunately, the maneuver hasn't worked out as planned, as the former St. Louis Rams receiver has struggled to make an impact.

As Christopher L. Gasper of The Boston Globe recently put it:

Danny Amendola’s first season as a Patriot has been as nondescript as a cinder-block wall. He has blended into the banal, cliché-filled background in Foxborough, another silent cog in Bill Belichick’s estimable football machine.

Julian Edelman has become Tom Brady's security blanket instead, catching 105 passes during the regular season, compared to just 54 for Amendola, who caught just two touchdowns all year long. 

The oft-injured star has been particularly ineffective the past three games—barring a couple of big catches—hauling in just six receptions in that span. 

But if the Patriots are going to keep up with Denver's potent offense, Brady is going to need both his top receivers to be productive, meaning Amendola needs to catch more than two or three passes. 

 

Champ Bailey, CB, Denver Broncos

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Future Hall of Fame defensive back Champ Bailey hasn't been bad lately, he simply hasn't been around. The cornerback was injured for much of the season, starting just three games, and he's going to be under the microscope this weekend.

Starting cornerback Chris Harris was lost for the season with a torn ACL during the team's divisional-round win over the Chargers, as Darryl Slater of The Star-Ledger reported:

Bleacher Report's Christopher Hansen notes Bailey has been a part-time player this year for the Broncos. He also thinks the Patriots should go after the veteran if he logs a lot of snaps:

If Bailey is playing every down, the Patriots would be wise to test the veteran. Formerly great cornerbacks don’t typically forget good technique—they simply lose the ability to stick with younger, faster receivers.

Brady trusts his receivers to make plays when they get open, and he won't hesitate to let 'er rip if one of them gains a step on Bailey. It'll be interesting to see if the legendary defender still has what it takes to make up that step while the ball's in the air. 

 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReed78 

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