As Sunday's AFC Championship showdown between the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos draws closer and closer, the time has come to look at which players will have the biggest impact on deciding the outcome of the game.
The last time these two teams played, the Patriots won a 34-31 overtime thriller at Gillette Stadium in Week 12, coming back after trailing 24-0 at halftime.
The Patriots and Broncos have been the two best teams in the AFC all season so you can surely expect another wild game on Sunday, with a chance to go to the Super Bowl on the line.
Now let's take a look at the five most important players on each team and how they can decide the outcome of the game.
New England Patriots
Tom Brady, Quarterback
A very obvious name to start but you can't make a list of the game's most important players without talking about Tom Brady.
The Patriots' new found dedication to the run game has taken a lot of pressure off of Brady. Including the playoffs, Brady has thrown less than 30 passes in a game just four times this season, three of which came in the last three games, per CSNNE's Tom E. Curran.
In those contests, Brady has averaged only 25 pass attempts per game with just two total touchdowns while never throwing for more than 200 yards.
The Patriots will certainly hope their rushing dominance can continue on Sunday in order to keep the explosive Denver offense off the field. But in all likelihood, the Patriots will need Brady to throw the ball well if they are going to win.
During the regular season, the Broncos' defense was ranked in the top 10 in both yards allowed per game (101.6) and yards allowed per rush attempt (3.9).
They are also coming off a divisional-round matchup against San Diego, where they held the Chargers to just 65 yards on the ground, albeit with Ryan Matthews missing much of the game with an injury.
While the Broncos run defense isn't dominant, it is much more stout than their pass defense, which ranked 16th in the league in opposing QB passer rating (84.5) and was just dealt a huge blow after losing cornerback Chris Harris for the season, as reported by Mike Klis of The Denver Post.
Back in Week 12, Brady ripped apart the Broncos' secondary to the tune of 344 yards and three touchdowns while completing 34 of 50 passes.
Tom Brady vs. Jack Del Rio defenses: 7-0, 171-of-235, 1,771 yards, 17 TDs. 0 INTs. Passer rating of 121.1 http://t.co/IGyuUpuFZF— Eric Wilbur (@GlobeEricWilbur) January 17, 2014
The fact that Denver's defensive coordinator is Jack Del Rio, a coach whose defenses have historically been owned by Brady, as pointed out by the Boston Globe's Eric Wilbur, is yet more confirmation that the Patriots quarterback should be in store for a big game.
LeGarrette Blount, Running Back
With all that said about Brady, that still doesn't mean the Patriots won't try to run the ball.
Under Belichick, Patriots are 19-0 when they run 34 or more times AND pass 26 times or fewer in the same game— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) January 17, 2014
When they do try to run the ball, it will likely be LeGarrette Blount that gets most of the work as he has been on a roll the last couple weeks.
From 2011 up until 2013, Blount went 30 straight games without reaching 100 yards rushing but has topped over 150 yards on the ground in each of his last two.
Against the Colts in the divisional round, Blount carried the rock 24 times for 166 yards and four touchdowns, breaking the franchise playoff record for yards in a game and finished with the second most rushing touchdowns in a game in NFL playoff history.
The Broncos' run defense is far superior to the Bills' and Colts' so Blount should have his hands full on Sunday.
Aqib Talib, Cornerback
The anchor of the Patriots defense added another name to his list last week, after doing a great job of limiting T.Y. Hilton.
Hilton beat Talib one time for a 41-yard catch but otherwise totaled just two catches for 17 yards the rest of the game when lined up against Talib.
Aqib Talib held star receivers Jimmy Graham, Vincent Jackson, and A.J. Green to under 100 yards this year -- combined....— The Boston Globe (@BostonGlobe) January 17, 2014
On Sunday though, Talib will have a much tougher test going up against Demaryius Thomas. In their Week 12 matchup, Talib held Thomas to just four catches for 41 yards, although Thomas did snag a touchdown as well.
Thomas is Denver's most lethal weapon, leading the team in targets (143), receptions (92), yards (1,430) and touchdowns (14) during a Pro Bowl season.
Talib has done very well against some of the best players in the league and is a Pro Bowler as well. Limiting Thomas' big play ability will go a long way in getting the Patriots a victory.
Logan Ryan, Cornerback
The rookie corner out of Rutgers has a major test this Sunday. Ryan took over for Kyle Arrington midway through Saturday's game at nickel and if that holds for Sunday, he will likely be going up against a combination of Wes Welker and Eric Decker in the slot.
Despite being a rookie, Ryan has had prior success against the Broncos. The last time these two teams met, he jumped in front of a pass intended for Eric Decker, picking off Manning and setting the Patriots up for a go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
Since playing the Broncos in Week 12, Ryan has been been very effective in coverage, getting thrown at 30 times in seven games, allowing just 15 catches for 200 yards with no touchdowns and four interceptions.
Regardless of whether he is matched up with Welker or Decker, there's no question that Manning will test the young rookie early and often on Sunday.
A huge key to the Broncos' offense is exploiting the slot receiver against the opponent's nickel cornerback so it will be up to Ryan to hold his own in what will be the biggest game of his young career.
Jamie Collins, Linebacker
Another rookie on this young Patriots defense, Collins had his coming out party on Saturday night.
Collins was flying all over the place against Indianapolis, recording six tackles (two for losses), a sack and an interception while also playing great coverage against Coby Fleener.
When matched up with Fleener, Collins held him to just two catches for 12 yards on five targets.
In the AFC Championship Game on Sunday he will face a much tougher matchup, going up against Julius Thomas.
Thomas has been nearly unstoppable at times this year, hauling in 12 touchdowns despite missing two games.
How Collins can matchup with Thomas will go a long way in deciding how effective the Patriots defense will be against the explosive Broncos offense.
Peyton Manning, Quarterback
Whether he wants to admit it or not, Sunday's showdown with Tom Brady and the Patriots is a legacy game for Peyton Manning.
After putting up one of the most impressive regular seasons of any quarterback in NFL history, if Manning can't deliver an impressive performance and lead his team to a victory in the AFC title game, it will all have been for nothing.
It won't be easy, as Manning has never fared well when going up against Brady, as Fox Sports points out.
The last time he faced the Patriots, he played one of his worst games of the season completing 19-of-36 passes for just 150 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
Peyton Manning's Win Pct against Tom Brady: .286 Manning's Win Pct against the rest of the NFL is more than double that: .700— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) January 17, 2014
In that game, Bill Belichick forced Manning to play right into his hands. Going with a Cover 2 defense with two safeties deep, Belichick practically dared Manning to hand the ball off and he happily complied, doing it 47 times.
It is a gameplan that both sides feel happy with, as the Patriots were limiting the Broncos' lethal passing attack and Denver was consistently picking up chunk yards on the ground.
On Sunday, Belichick will likely implement a similar gameplan and it will be up to Manning to decide when is the proper time to hand the ball off and when to take the game into his own hands.
Knowshon Moreno, Running Back
Thanks to that aforementioned Patriots' Cover 2 defense in Week 12, Knowshon Moreno put up an absolute monster performance.
Moreno carried the ball 37 times for 224 yards with a touchdown, ripping off over six yards per carry while also rushing for 101 yards after contact. Moreno's 37 carries were the most by anyone in an NFL game over the last four years.
If the Patriots run a similar scheme on Sunday, Moreno should be in store for another huge day, both in touches and in yards.
While having Manning constantly hand the ball off may be playing right into the Patriots' hands, that doesn't change the fact that the Broncos will likely be able to run at will on Sunday.
It's just a matter of if Moreno and the rest of the Broncos offense can make the Patriots pay once they get in scoring range.
Julius Thomas, Tight End
The numbers Peyton Manning has put up this season when targeting Julius Thomas are simply insane.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), in the 16 games they have played together this year, Manning has thrown 95 passes to Thomas. Of those 95 passes, Thomas has caught a ridiculous 74.7 percent of them, racking up 864 yards.
Manning has also connected on 12 touchdown passes to Thomas without throwing a single interception.
Thomas has quickly become one of the elite tight ends in the league and proved it by earning a spot in the Pro Bowl. At 6'5" and 246 pounds, he is a nightmare to handle and as I previously mentioned, he will get a lot of work against Jamie Collins on Sunday.
Thomas was forced to miss the Week 12 matchup with an injury so there's no doubt he will be raring to go on Sunday.
Shaun Phillips, Linebacker/Defensive Lineman
It's no secret that hitting Tom Brady early and often makes the star quarterback a little jumpy in the pocket as the game goes on.
When he has had time in the pocket this season, Brady has completed 65.8 percent of his passes while throwing 20 touchdowns and six interceptions, good for a 95.8 passer rating. In other words, give Brady time and he is going to tear your heart out.
On the other hand, when defenses have gotten pressure on Brady the results have been far different. When facing pressure this season, Brady has completed just 45.9 percent of his passes, throwing five touchdowns and five interceptions while accumulating a 64.6 passer rating, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
This is where Shaun Phillips enters the equation.
With Von Miller out, it will be up to Phillips to get to Brady.
Phillips leads the Broncos with 11 sacks and 32 QB hurries on the year, and bounces around on both the left and right sides of the line.
In their Week 12 matchup, Phillips struggled to get to Brady, registering just one hurry and no hits all game.
He is going to need to put up a much better effort than that on Sunday if the Broncos hope to slow down Brady and the Patriots' passing offense.
Champ Bailey, Cornerback
After losing Chris Harris for the season, the Broncos secondary has taken a big step back.
As ESPN Stats & Info mentions, the Denver pass defense was far better with Harris on the field this season than they were with him off of it.
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
However, the NFL is a "next man up" league and veteran Champ Bailey will likely get the first crack at taking over for Harris in the slot.
Bailey has struggled to stay on the field this season and even when he has played, he has only been on the field in spurts.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will likely be matched up with Danny Amendola on the outside, so that leaves Bailey to do his best with Julian Edelman, Brady's go-to receiver, in the slot.
Brady will certainly be attacking Bailey often, likely checking to see how many steps Bailey has lost and if he can keep up with the much younger Edelman.
If he can respond to these tests with a big play or two, it could swing the game in the Broncos' favor. But if he continuously gets beaten, the Broncos will have to look to other options in their secondary.
If you looked at this game solely on paper, I don't know how anyone can possibly pick the Patriots to go into Denver and beat the Broncos.
While the Patriots' defense isn't dominant, it definitely gets the edge over the Broncos', but on the offensive end the Broncos are miles better.
Peyton Manning's top four passing targets—Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker—are all better than anyone Tom Brady is going to be throwing the ball to.
Which team will win the AFC Championship game on Sunday?
As good as LeGarrette Blount has played of late, I'd even give the edge to Knowshon Moreno and the Denver rushing offense.
Even though the game isn't played on paper, I simply can't go against the Denver Broncos after the dominant season they have put together.
With the weather on Sunday shaping up to be clear skies and mild temperatures, I am expecting Peyton Manning to silence all of his doubters and play one of the best games of his playoff career as he carries his team to a thrilling AFC Championship victory in one of the best games of the season.
Broncos 34, Patriots 31