Though it took a few odd turns, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will decide the AFC yet again Sunday when the New England Patriots visit the Denver Broncos.
The matchup between legends doesn't need hype, but keep in mind a simple caveat—it might be the last encounter between Brady and Manning.
Brady had to deal with a wealth of injuries around him this year, but he led the Patriots to the postseason and took down the Kansas City Chiefs. As most know, Manning himself dealt with an injury that kept him sidelined until the final game of the season, where he shined and then led the team to a win against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It's only right the AFC gets decided in historic fashion next weekend. Here's an early look at everything to know surrounding the contest.
When: Sunday, January 24, at 3:05 p.m. ET
Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver
Spread: New England (-3)
What a story.
Manning appeared in only 10 games this year, suiting up in the season finale against the San Diego Chargers and using a 5-of-9 line with 69 yards and a late win to convince the coaching staff he was healthy enough to take the starting gig back.
In the divisional round, Manning threw for 222 yards while getting 109 yards and a score from his runners and a strong defensive showing to get the 23-16 decision against the Steelers.
The win sets up a rematch for the ages, as Bleacher Report illustrated:
For many, including Denver running back C.J. Anderson, this was the obvious path, according to Troy Renck of the Denver Post:
CJ Anderson on #patriots. " I wouldn't have it any other way. You have to play the best"— Troy Renck (@TroyRenck) January 18, 2016
Brady's got quite the story, too, with top wideout Julian Edelman appearing in just nine games and losing a contributor such as running back Dion Lewis for the season and names such as Rob Gronkowski with nagging issues.
In their first postseason game, the Patriots got 302 yards and two scores from Brady, while street free agent Steven Jackson led the way with six carries for 16 yards in the 27-20 win against the Chiefs. Edelman made his return and led the team with 10 catches for 100 yards.
Most will point out that the title game is a rematch of the Week 12 meeting between these teams, where the Broncos escaped at home with a 30-24 overtime victory.
The narrative around that game compared to this one will chat up injuries. New England didn't have Edelman or Danny Amendola. The defense didn't have Jamie Collins and lost Dont'a Hightower. Denver, on the other hand, didn't have a healthy Manning under center.
Instead, Denver trotted out Brock Osweiler, who threw for 270 yards with a score and a pick while leaning on Anderson's 113 yards and two scores. Despite missing names, Brady still managed a trio of touchdown passes on the road without an interception.
The rematch with newfound and returning pieces sets up an interesting chess match. On one hand, Brady will have Edelman back. On the other, Manning might execute a more patient, conservative offense than Osweiler, which was a focal point in his interviews after beating the Steelers.
"The best thing we did, we stayed patient all game. We didn't force anything and we didn't give them any short fields. Obviously, when we needed it, we had that big drive and we got that touchdown that really put us up," Manning said, according to the Associated Press.
Denver won't make a secret about how it wants to win the game and advance to the Super Bowl—ride Anderson and an elite defense while controlling the game and asking Manning to only take major chances if the game flow calls for it.
Expect it to call for it, of course. Both Manning and Brady won't let this go down as a game where defenses steal the spotlight and decide the outcome. Like it was almost fate that brought these two together again, it's hard to imagine the game will be anything close to boring.
While it's hard to imagine Brady doesn't post better numbers than Manning in this contest, the win figures to go to the home team.
Sans defensive pieces or not, New England had major issues halting the Denver rushing attack in the first meeting between these teams, an odd occurrence given the presence of a backup under center.
Manning's no backup, and the Denver ground game continues to run strong. New England's, not so much. Brady tossed three scores in that same meeting, but it's hard to imagine how much he can improve from a numbers standpoint in comparison to the first game.
With a greater threat under center this time out, look for the Broncos to pull ahead late while riding the calm Manning, who finds himself perhaps worse off than his longtime rival but better reinforced and at home.
Manning's going to take perhaps the final round between the legends by rising to the occasion late.
Prediction: Broncos 27, Patriots 24