Peyton Manning and Tom Brady will meet for the second time this season as the Denver Broncos host the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Sunday, Jan. 19.
These two put together a matchup for the ages in Week 12, as Brady and the Patriots rattled off 31 straight points before winning in overtime, 34-31.
Believe it or not, things are much different this time around. Outside of the obvious, here are a few key storylines to watch on the field in Sunday's can't-miss spectacle.
Will Julius Thomas Make an Impact?
Julius Thomas out of Portland State had what could aptly be called a breakout year in 2013. After two years of appearing in a total of eight games, Thomas appeared in 14 in 2013 as one of Manning's favorite weapons.
The result was a superb line—65 receptions for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns.
As fate would have it, one of the games Thomas missed this year was the loss to the Patriots. His absence surely played a part in Denver's defeat, as ESPN perfectly illustrates:
Peyton Manning: 74.5 comp pct, 12 TD, 1 Int when targeting Julius Thomas this season. Thomas missed Denver's Week 12 loss to the Patriots.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 15, 2014
Manning clearly views Thomas as a top option. He sang the young tight end's praises recently, per Robert Klemko of MMQB.com:
Julius was huge all game. He’s been huge all season. Those were two huge plays. Julius and I have spent a lot of time working on those particular routes, after practice, in practice … to me, that’s one of the most rewarding parts of football. You put that work in off to the side, after practice. It pays off in a game, and it really makes you feel like it was worth it.
New England has struggled against tight ends in 2013 and is one week removed from allowing six receptions for 74 yards to Coby Fleener of the Indianapolis Colts.
Thomas may prove to be the spark the Broncos missed in Week 12.
Can the Patriots Consistently Hit Peyton Manning?
The Patriots held Manning to 150 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in their last meeting, primarily thanks to two sacks.
Those numbers pale in comparison to what New England has done in the pass-rush department as of late:
Pressures and sacks clearly have an impact on Manning, but it is important to remember that he is protected by the second-best offensive line from 2013 in regards to pass protection, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Manning is by no means a mobile quarterback at this stage of his career, so if the Patriots can remain hot when it comes to pressuring signal-callers, New England will drastically improve their chances of advancing to the Super Bowl.
Can the Broncos Stop the Patriots on the Ground?
In the past, this spot would be reserved for the almighty Brady and his prowess through the air.
Times are different now.
Rob Gronkowski is out, and two of Brady's top targets in 2013 are rookies. The result is a shift in philosophy for the Patriots, as the team has taken more of a run-first approach.
This has been especially the case in recent weeks—and it has been especially effective:
The star of the show has unexpectedly been veteran running back LeGarrette Blount, who totaled 48 carries for 355 yards and six touchdowns in the team's last two games.
Denver held the Patriots to 116 rushing yards in Week 12 (Blount had two carries for 13 yards), which makes sense considering the Broncos are tied for seventh overall in the NFL against the rush with an average of 101.6 yards surrendered per game.
It will be a battle of unexpected strengths in the AFC Championship. Whichever team can impose its will in the trenches will surely end up with the win.