Thankfully, NFL fans will get to see that rivalry play out once again in the AFC Championship as the Denver Broncos host the New England Patriots with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. When last these teams played on November 24, the Patriots erased a 24-0 halftime deficit and won 34-31 in overtime.
But these teams are far different now. The Patriots have reinvented themselves after losing Rob Gronkowski for the season and Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker last offseason. The Broncos still have arguably the top offense in the league, but the defense is now without Von Miller and Chris Harris, two huge presences on that side of the ball.
A lot has changed, but one thing remains the same: Manning is doing battle with the Patriots once again in January. It's a familiar feeling.
When: Sunday, January 19 at 3 p.m. ET
Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver, Colo.
Spread: Denver (-4), according to Bovada
|New England Injury Report|
|Denver Injury Report|
|Derek Wolfe||DE||Injured Reserve|
|Chris Harris||CB||Injured Reserve|
It's all about Manning versus Brady this week in a matchup that feels as much like a battle for a trip to the Super Bowl as it does the game that will shape the "Who was the better quarterback this generation?" argument that rages on.
To date, Manning has a Super Bowl ring, four MVP awards and better career stats. He's the super computer of the NFL position, a man who has changed the meaning of the word preparation for NFL quarterbacks.
He also has a 9-11 postseason record, which stands in stark contrast to Brady's sparkling 18-7 postseason mark. Brady has three Super Bowl rings (in five trips), a 10-4 record against Manning and is generally considered the most clutch player of his generation.
Each presents a compelling case as the best signal-caller of his generation. Sunday's game will go a long way toward answering the argument once and for all.
As for the rest of Sunday's game, well, the contest will probably come down to which team plays better defensively. The Broncos bring the league's top-rated passing attack into this contest, while the Patriots have morphed into a run-first, ball-control attack.
As Marc Sessler of NFL.com notes, a key matchup in this game will be rejuvenated running back LeGarrette Blount facing the Denver front seven:
Last weekend's winning playoff teams ran an average of 37.3 times, with New England undressing the Indianapolis Colts for 234 yards and six touchdowns on 46 attempts. Blount tied a Patriots postseason record with 166 rushing yards and came within one touchdown of tying an NFL record with four scores on the ground.
Blount has been running of late with visible power and burst, but the Broncos have grown surprisingly stout against the run. Denver ranked seventh in the league with 1,626 yards allowed, but that's partly the result of teams passing from the start to keep up with Manning's offense. After teams ran for 100-plus yards in six straight games against the Broncos, they've allowed just one team to do so sinceWeek 13.
Along those lines, the Broncos have given up just 14.7 points per game and 120.2 fewer yards per tilt over their last three outings. During that stretch, nose tackle Terrance "Pot Roast" Knighton has been an unblockable behemoth, while first-round draft pick Sylvester Williams and veteran Paris Lenonhave been a total load against the run.
The Pats will look to grind out yards on the ground and limit the chances Manning has on offense, while Belichick will look to cook up another defensive scheme that takes Manning out of his offensive rhythm.
Expect another chess match, in other words.
Let's be honest—on paper, the Broncos are the justifiable favorites. They were historically good on offense this year, and the collection of weapons they possess—Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker (facing his old team, another great storyline), Eric Decker, Julius Thomas, Knowshon Moreno, Montee Ball—is enough to give any defense headaches.
There's a reason Tom Brady said, "It would be as satisfying a victory as we’ve ever had to go to Denver and win this game."
Sorry, Tom, but it's not happening. Eventually, talent does trump scheme, especially when that talent is led by an offensive mastermind like Manning. If this game were in Foxboro—and if the Patriots weren't banged up themselves on defense—you'd probably give the edge to the Patriots.
But in Denver, with that offense, the Broncos are going to win another classic featuring Manning against the Patriots. The Broncos win 31-27.