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The two best teams in the AFC during the regular season were the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos, and they will battle for the conference championship on Sunday afternoon in the Mile High City. Oh yeah, the game also features the 15th all-time battle between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning—but hey, who's counting?
The Patriots are coming off an absolute whitewashing of the Colts in their divisional matchup last Saturday night, a game in which the team ran for 234 yards and an outrageous six rushing touchdowns. On Sunday, the Broncos jumped out to a big lead and held on late to vanquish the Chargers, setting up this dream matchup for all of the AFC's marbles.
The two teams met in Week 12, and as has often been the case in the Brady/Manning rivalry, the Patriots came out on top, overcoming a 24-point halftime deficit to win in overtime, 34-31. The victory moved Brady's record to 10-4 in head-to-head battles with Manning, and it seemed to reinforce the notion that Patriots coach Bill Belichick possesses some manner of voodoo over the Broncos signal-caller.
But on Sunday, the voodoo will be torn asunder. Manning and the Broncos will emerge victorious.
While the Patriots ran the ball with authority against Indianapolis, repeating the feat in Denver will be another matter entirely. The Broncos finished the regular season with the NFL's seventh-ranked rush defense and allowed only 65 yards on the ground last week in their win over San Diego. Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount might have had a game for the ages against the Colts (166 rushing yards, four touchdowns), but a repeat of those numbers is unlikely.
That means it'll be up to Brady to carry the day for New England.
And while Brady is certainly capable of putting points on the scoreboard, his offensive weaponry pales in comparison to Manning's. Manning is coming off a season in which he threw an NFL-record 55 touchdown passes and orchestrated the most prolific offense in NFL history. It'd be foolish to suggest that Denver won't score points in bunches.
But the Patriots will score as well, especially considering Denver will be without cornerback Chris Harris, who tore his ACL last weekend. Expect Brady to have a huge game through the air and put the pressure on Manning to match him throw-for-throw.
Manning will be up for the task. His receivers are simply too good, with Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker joining tight end Julius Thomas to comprise a fearsome foursome of pass-catchers. Plus, the Broncos sliced and diced New England on the ground in Week 12, rushing for 280 yards. The Broncos should be able to run the football successfully with Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball.
The team that wins the game will likely be the team that has the ball last. That will be Manning and the Broncos, who will emerge victorious and advance to Super Bowl XLVIII.