Denver's Running Game Is the Biggest Factor in the AFC Championship

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Denver's Running Game Is the Biggest Factor in the AFC Championship
Associated Press
The Broncos' running game has been inconsistent all year but must step up on Sunday for Denver to come away victorious.

And then there were four. That's right, just four teams remain in contention for the Super Bowl, and you better believe it's going to be fun when we get started on Sunday.

As much of a bummer as it is that football fans have only two games to enjoy instead of four, conference championship weekend typically brings some of the most competitive and entertaining games of the season.

While the headline matchup of New England's trip to Denver is obviously Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning, how each team's role players perform could ultimately decide which team represents the AFC in Super Bowl 50.

Steven Senne/Associated Press
Look familiar? Brady and Manning are set to square off one more time in the AFC Championship on Sunday.

In particular, the team that's able to establish any semblance of a running game could hold an edge throughout Sunday's game. So which team holds an edge in the rushing attack?

When New England visited Denver in November, the Broncos rushed for 179 yards and three touchdowns en route to a 30-24 overtime victory.

Sure, the Patriots were banged up that day and lost Rob Gronkowski in the second half, but Denver did establish a formula for defeating the defending Super Bowl champs.

Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson haven't been the most consistent running backs all season, but they have each shown flashes of explosiveness in the open field this year.

Each running back surpassed 700 yards on the ground this season, but neither was able to have success on a week-to-week basis.

Hillman broke the 100-yard barrier on four occasions but also failed to reach 50 yards on the ground nine times during the regular season.

Aaron Josefczyk/Associated Press/Associated Press
Hillman has shown the explosiveness to have success in the NFL but has struggled with consistency this season.

Anderson ran for 100 yards twice during the year but was held under 50 yards on 10 occasions.

Jack Dempsey/Associated Press/Associated Press
Anderson scored the game-winning touchdown against New England when these teams met in November, but he must step up again in this weekend's game with a Super Bowl trip on the line.

Kansas City was able to run for 135 yards in its divisional-round game against the Patriots, so Denver certainly has some film to base its ground attack on.

Unfortunately, Manning doesn't have the same running ability as Alex Smith, so we aren't expecting many rushing yards from the quarterback position.

However, if the Broncos call a bootleg, New England better be ready to track down No. 18 and his wheels.

New England rushed 16 times for just 39 yards in its previous trip to Denver this year, allowing the Broncos pass-rushers to pin their ears back and sack Brady three times. Von Miller and Co. will certainly be anticipating a similar game plan from the Pats, especially if they fall behind early.

The Patriots offense seemed closer than ever to returning to full strength against the Chiefs last weekend, as Brady threw all over the NFL's ninth-ranked pass defense.

If Brady continues to play at the level we saw last weekend and the Patriots receivers are healthy come Sunday, their passing attack could return to its early-season form and be a problem for the Broncos defense.

It's safe to say that Denver will need to find balance on offense in order to upset the Patriots on Sunday. Keeping the ball away from New England's vaunted passing attack will be of the utmost importance to keep this one close for four quarters.

If it comes down to which team can throw the ball more effectively, then the Manning-led Broncos will likely be in for a long day.

Manning's arm strength has clearly diminished over the years, and his inability to throw deep does not bode well if Sunday's contest turns into a shootout.

However, if Denver's running game can establish a consistent threat throughout the day and its defense holds up against Brady, Manning could be headed to his fourth Super Bowl.

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