You don’t have to be a die-hard football fan to know that Peyton Manning and Tom Brady will be facing off for a spot at the Super Bowl on Jan. 19 in Denver.
When the Denver Broncos welcome the New England Patriots, it will mark the 15th time that this generation’s two defining quarterbacks will have played against each other. Brady owns a 10-4 overall advantage and won the head-to-head showdown earlier this season, although that game was in Foxborough.
Almost every headline heading into the AFC Championship Game has seemingly focused on Manning versus Brady in some capacity. While the two superstars will undoubtedly have their fingerprints all over the contest, it will take inspired efforts by some of the surrounding cast of characters for one of the signal-callers to emerge victorious.
Let’s dig into a discussion about some of the under-the-radar candidates who may ultimately decide which team will represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Denver’s rushing attack doesn’t get much credit considering the record-breaking passing numbers it put up this season, but it was critical against the San Diego Chargers in the Divisional Round.
The Broncos possessed the ball for more than 35 minutes and built an early lead that they held on to at the end. When Denver went to New England in Week 12, it had a 24-0 lead that quickly evaporated in the second half. Had it run the ball and clock more effectively, it may have won.
That is where Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball step in.
While Moreno draws more headlines, don’t be surprised if Ball is the one to make the more critical plays. He finished with nearly 600 yards rushing during the regular season and saw 10 touches against the Chargers last week.
New England will gear up to stop Moreno and perhaps relax a bit when Ball steps in. The Pats rank 30th in the NFL against the run, so any mental lapse will allow Ball to exploit the holes in New England's defense.
The offense has generated all the headlines coming into this game, and rightfully so, but it may take a premier defensive play or two to walk away with victory.
The Patriots defense has been maligned for much of the year, but it held Manning to an uncharacteristic 150 yards passing in the first meeting, largely because of the secondary and a solid pass rush.
Considering the litany of weapons at Manning’s disposal, New England is going to need an inspired performance from its secondary. Assuming the always-prepared Manning tries to avoid New England's top cornerback, Aqib Talib, the responsibility of stopping the aerial attack will fall on Logan Ryan’s shoulders.
Ryan actually led the Patriots with five interceptions and has a nose for the ball in critical moments. Games don't get more critical than the AFC Championship Game.
Look for Ryan to record a crucial interception late in the game when Manning tries to exploit what he sees as a mismatch downfield.
Just a cursory glance at Manning’s receivers makes one wonder how this offense didn’t put up even more points this year.
Wes Welker, Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas and even Moreno out of the backfield will give him plenty of options against the Patriots secondary. Tight end Julius Thomas is often the overlooked member of the receiving corps, and no player on Denver’s offense can create more mismatches in space, considering it is often a linebacker who is asked to cover him.
Thomas, who tallied 788 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns in 2013, missed the first meeting with New England. Had Thomas been in the lineup, it isn’t difficult to imagine the Broncos scoring in the second half and perhaps holding onto that big lead.
Excellent player—size, speed, he's a good vertical receiver, he gets down the field on seams and flags and over routes and wheel routes, like he caught last week and things like that. He's also good on catch-and-run plays.
Thomas’ critical catch on 3rd–and-17 against San Diego was an indication of just how clutch he can be. Look for a similar play against the Patriots.