When it comes to NFL storylines, the greatest storytellers in human history could not have penned a better script for the 2014 AFC Championship—Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning, perhaps for the final time in a matchup of such magnitude.
This rivalry between two of the best to ever hit the gridiron has taken place three times in the playoffs, and each time the winner has gone on to hoist the Lombardi Trophy after a Super Bowl victory.
While the spotlight is undoubtedly on the quarterbacks, other top storylines quietly litter the matchup when the Denver Broncos host the New England Patriots.
Here are just a few of the superb storylines to watch in the showdown between the AFC's top two teams.
The Mastermind, Bill Belichick
New England coach Bill Belichick is flying under the radar despite his status as a mad genius at the sport in general.
One could bring up the fact no other coach in NFL history has had so much success against Manning, as ESPN captures:
Peyton Manning has lost 11 times to Bill Belichick (6-11 overall). No other coach has beaten Manning more than 5 times.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 19, 2014
Or, one could talk about Belichick's resounding success in the postseason throughout his historic career:
With a win today, Bill Belichick (19-8) will match Tom Landry (20-16) for the most postseason wins by a coach in NFL history.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 19, 2014
Instead, let's just focus on what Belichick has done with so little this season.
First off, the Patriots were enshrouded in controversy all offseason thanks to the Aaron Hernandez saga. Belichick successfully navigated those waters, only to be greeted by season-ending injuries this year to big names such as Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Jerod Mayo and Rob Gronkowski.
No big deal. New England still went 12-4 and won the AFC East. The team got a marquee win over the Cleveland Browns in Week 14 by coming back from a 12-point deficit with two minutes left in regulation.
They also beat these same Broncos in Week 12 after overcoming a 24-point hole to win in overtime.
Perhaps most impressive, Belichick has found the perfect time to mold the franchise into a gritty, run-first team rather than the finesse passing offense led by Brady of yesteryear.
Who knows what Belichick has in store for Manning this time around, but to doubt him at all is simply foolish. Manning put it best in the week leading up to the game:
"I think it’s safe to say that Bill Belichick will go down as the greatest NFL coach of all time." - Peyton Manning— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) January 16, 2014
The Propensity for a Boring Game
Part of Belichick's genius is relying on one LeGarrette Blount, a former castaway in Tampa Bay the Patriots were able to acquire in exchange for a seventh-round pick and Jeff Demps last offseason.
Which team wins?
Blount has made the most of Belichick's shift in team offensive identity in recent weeks, with 48 carries for 355 yards and six touchdowns in New England's last two games.
Credit Denver coach John Fox for doing a similar thing with Knowshon Moreno, who ran for 224 yards and a score in the Week 12 loss. Sprinkle in a dose of rookie running back Montee Ball as well, who has looked good with 10 carries in each of his past two games.
In other words, this epic duel between two legendary signal-callers may end up being the complete opposite of what most expect thanks to savvy coaches who want nothing more than to keep the ball out of the hands of the quarterbacks.
But back to the quarterbacks, who have been eerily similar outside of the whole Lombardi Trophy department:
Tom Brady is 8-7 in his last 15 playoff games. So is Peyton Manning.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 19, 2014
Peyton Manning ranks 2nd all-time in postseason completions, attempts and pass yards... behind Tom Brady.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 17, 2014
Above all else, this game may dictate the legacies for both Manning and Brady.
It is rather simple for Manning. The stink around his career has been the consistency of his falling out of the postseason race after dominating the regular season. After throwing for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns (both records) in 2013, will Manning suffer an all too familiar fate?
Or will Manning execute the ultimate triumph, prevail over his nemesis and possibly go out on top after another Super Bowl ring?
Brady's scenario is much more complicated. After all, if he advances to the Super Bowl, it will mark his sixth—an NFL record. His dominance over Manning will be cemented, but what if he loses the big game? Will his failures when it matters most outweigh his accomplishments?
Much will be answered about both legendary players on Jan. 19 in perhaps their final date in the playoffs.