The two best teams aren't always the last ones standing, but there's no doubt the New England Patriots (No. 2) and Denver Broncos (No. 1) deserve their spots in the 2014 AFC Championship Game.
This is going to be the 15th time Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have faced one another, and it'll be the fourth time they've battled in the postseason. Brady has accumulated a significant edge, posting a career record of 10-4 overall and 2-1 in the playoffs.
History notwithstanding, Manning's Broncos are favored to win this upcoming championship game.
After losing just three games all year and putting together one of the greatest offensive seasons in the history of the league, it's not surprising.
Brady isn't fazed.
"I’m sure no one’s going to pick us to win this week," Brady said in an interview with Dennis & Callahan of WEEI. "We’ve had our backs against the wall for a while. ... We’ve got a bunch of underdogs on our team, and we’ll be an underdog again. We’ll see how that shapes up here at the end of the week."
Here's a look at when and where you can catch the action, along with betting information, injury reports, additional analysis and a final prediction.
When: Sunday, Jan. 19, at 3 p.m. ET
Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver, Colo.
Live Stream: NFL Sunday Ticket
Betting Lines (via Covers)
- Over/Under: 56 points
- Spread: Denver (-5.5)
Team Injury Reports
Patriots (via Patriots.com)
|Ryan Allen||P||Shoulder (LP)|
|Aaron Dobson||WR||Foot (LP)|
|Kenbrell Thompkins||WR||Hip/Concussion (LP)|
|Danny Amendola||WR||Groin (FP)|
|Alfonzo Dennard||CB||Knee/Shoulder (FP)|
|Dane Fletcher||LB||Groin (FP)|
|Dont'a Hightower||LB||Ankle (FP)|
|Logan Mankins||G||Ankle (FP)|
|Shane Vereen||RB||Groin (FP)|
Broncos (via DenverBroncos.com)
Can Denver's Defense Shut Down New England's Running Game?
Everyone wants this game to be about Manning and Brady, but given the way New England has been running the ball these days, the quarterback duel might not come to fruition. NFL.com's Chris Wesseling puts it like this:
All of the hype leading up to the AFC Championship Game will justifiably concentrate on future Hall of Famers Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Don't be surprised, though, if the decisive matchup is the Denver's revamped front seven against the New England's steamrolling ground attack.
The common theme among Denver's three losses during the regular season was an inability to shut down the opposing offense's running game. The Broncos allowed 414 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 106 carries in those losses.
Not only is running the ball effectively a good strategy offensively (for many reasons), it's also a means of keeping Manning and Co. off the field. Denver's offense is capable of scoring points in a hurry, and keeping Manning off the field is the best way to avoid getting scorched.
The Patriots come into this game on a tremendous roll running the ball, and the emergence of LeGarrette Blount as a legitimate featured back for New England has been the catalyst for this success. In his last three games, Blount has scored eight touchdowns, and the Patriots have rushed for 643 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Denver's defense has its work cut out for it, that's for certain.
This is a tricky game to predict.
On the one hand, Brady and Belichick have been Manning's Kryptonite over the course of his tremendously successful career. Furthermore, as B/R's Mike Freeman points out, Denver's defense could potentially be a liability in this contest:
I think Brady gets it done again because he has the best running game maybe he's ever had and that Broncos defense isn't great. It's been good in the past month or so but can still be had. Brady takes advantage.
On the other hand, Manning comes into the game with his record-breaking offense fully healthy and raring to go.
New England's defensive secondary is banged up and, during the divisional round, had trouble with T.Y. Hilton and a couple of other guys who wouldn't even make Denver's roster. The talented quartet of Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Wes Welker should have a field day at home.
In the end, I'm going with the home team to win a close game, thanks to a signature performance by Manning in the clutch.
Broncos win, 31-30.
Follow me on Twitter @JesseReed78