It is only right that Peyton Manning and Tom Brady meet at least one last time with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, which is the case on Jan. 19 at Sports Authority Field when the New England Patriots visit the Denver Broncos in the 2014 AFC Championship.
Manning and Brady have an extensive history, which is highlighted by three postseason meetings—where the winner has gone on each time to claim the Lombardi Trophy.
Interestingly enough, both quarterbacks will rely on those around them to win Sunday. The signal-callers are obviously major factors in the outcome of the contest, but this season more than most has seen them rely on others to win games.
As cerebral players and two of the best to ever line up under center, Manning and Brady understand that a few key factors will dictate the outcome of the game.
Patriots: Ride LeGarrette Blount
For a case in point when it comes to Brady relying on talent around him this season, veteran running back LeGarrette Blount of all players has carried the team in its past two wins.
While he tallied a modest 772 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in a committee this season, Blount managed 189 rushing yards and two touchdowns against the Buffalo Bills in Week 17. He followed that up with a jaw-dropping 166 yards and four touchdowns against the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round.
Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio understands that the New England running game is a major concern, per Stuart Zaas of the Broncos' website:
...the thing they really are doing is physically they are getting after people, they’re winning the heading battle in the trenches and running the ball right at people with [RB LeGarrette] Blount doing a large portion of the running, but all of their backs are capable. Good group and we’re getting geared up for it.
A non-factor with two carries for 13 yards in New England's Week 12, 34-31 overtime win over Denver, Blount will turn out to be the biggest factor of all as the back who leads the charge Sunday against a stout run defense that allows an average of just 101.6 yards per game.
Broncos: Get the Ball to Julius Thomas
Manning gets the large chunk of the credit after a year in which he broke the NFL single-season record for both passing touchdowns (55) and yardage (5,477) in 2013, but even he understands that the players around him will play as big of a factor against the Patriots. He said as much recently, per USA Today's Lindsay H. Jones:
The game next week is Broncos versus Patriots. I know there will be some individual matchups that will get headlines, but it will be a battle between two good teams. Teams that have been through a lot, that have overcome a lot to get to this point, and that's where my focus will be – trying to help the Broncos get a win against the Patriots.
Perhaps no player is more important to Manning on Sunday than third-year tight end Julius Thomas, who missed the Week 12 loss with an injury. His absence resulted in a box score where Manning's top receiver was still a tight end, but other big names simply disappeared:
With all due respect to Jacob Tamme, he simply cannot impact a game as Thomas does when paired with Manning, as ESPN points out:
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
New England does well against outside receivers thanks to the stellar corner combo of Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard, but it is very much susceptible to being hurt by big tight ends. Thomas must have a huge day for Manning to overcome Brady this time around.
Patriots: Stuff Broncos Running Game
New England pulled off an astounding comeback to beat Denver in the regular season, but it took a superhuman effort and a Wes Welker punt-return gaffe mixed with a heaping pile of luck to accomplish the feat—at home.
Now on the road, New England must play better to give itself a fighting chance. Believe it or not, that journey will start in the trenches against a sound Denver rushing attack.
The Patriots did not do themselves any favors in this regard in the last meeting, as Knowshon Moreno bullied his way to 224 rushing yards and a score on a 6.1 yards-per-carry average. But Moreno is far from the only rusher who should intimidate the Patriots, as Tom Oates of the Wisconsin State Journal details:
He may have started slowly, but the past six games, Broncos rookie RB Montee Ball has outrushed starter Knowshon Moreno. #Badgers— Tom Oates (@TomOatesWSJ) January 13, 2014
Which team wins?
Montee Ball has come on as of late and had 10 carries in each of the team's last two games, which he turned into 124 yards. The Wisconsin product is but another wrinkle the Patriots must account for against Manning's team.
Manning is obviously a focal point, but a New England defense that ranked No. 30 in the NFL with an average of 134.1 rushing yards allowed per game this season must improve significantly—a miracle comeback in spite of a woeful defensive performance in the trenches is not a guarantee this time around.