The latest and, in all likelihood, final chapter in the storied rivalry between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will go into the books Sunday, as the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos square off in the AFC Championship Game from Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver.
This is the 17th overall meeting between Brady and Manning, fourth in the AFC championship. Brady holds the all-time edge (11-5), but Manning is better in the championship tilt (2-1).
While in years past Manning-Brady has usually shaped up as a back-and-forth quarterback duel between the two best QBs in the game at the time, the circumstances are very different this year.
For Brady, it's going to be difficult to rack up points against a terrifying Broncos defense that allowed the fewest yards per game and fourth-fewest points per game this season. Manning's battle is with the ravages of time, as he's devolved into a game manager with a penchant for costly turnovers.
Unless he can conjure up a vintage performance, it will be the Denver run game that carries the offense in this one. Here's a look at the updated odds and viewing info for the big game. Odds are courtesy of Odds Shark and updated as of Saturday, Jan. 23, at 9 a.m. ET.
2016 AFC Championship Odds, Viewing Info
When: Sunday, Jan. 24 at 3:05 p.m. ET
Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver
Live Stream: CBSSports.com
Spread: New England (-3)
Odds Analysis, Prediction
The Broncos are slight underdogs in this contest despite playing at home and having beaten the Patriots 30-24 in overtime in Week 12. It was Brock Osweiler, not Manning, who started that game for Denver.
He had a modest performance, as the Broncos powered their way to victory behind the hard running of C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman. While Osweiler was hardly prolific in his time as starter, he was certainly less error-prone than Manning, which could be a reason why Denver is an underdog.
Manning's managed to stay turnover-free in his last two appearances, but (potentially) inclement weather and a resolute Patriots defense could force him into a big mistake or two. Manning's arm strength has declined significantly, and if there's one coach who knows how to hone in on a team's weakness, it's Patriots mastermind Bill Belichick.
The Broncos passing game certainly sputtered against Pittsburgh in the divisional round, not that this was entirely Manning's fault. Drops plagued the team in that game, and it has become a point of emphasis in practice, per ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold:
#Broncos, after seven dropped passes in Sunday's win, WRs coach Tyke Tolbert broke out Combine gauntlet drill for the group in Wed. practice— Jeff Legwold (@Jeff_Legwold) January 20, 2016
Wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are one of the better duos in the league when both are on their game. New England's standout cornerback, Malcolm Butler, can only cover one guy at a time. With a shaky arm, Manning has to be able to trust his downfield receiving options to make plays for him in order to have a good game.
Speaking of options, Denver will certainly look to establish a tried-and-true run game that had great success against New England in Week 10. Anderson rushed for 113 yards and two scores, including the game-winning touchdown in overtime, while Hillman picked up another 59 rushing yards and a score.
"It was definitely a problem," said Belichick, per the Providence Journal's Tim Britton, via the Denver Post. "We just didn't play very well. Give up 179 yards, I mean, that's not where we want to be."
Improved health on both offense and defense keyed the Patriots win over Kansas City in the divisional round, and that could again be the case against Denver.
Linebacker Jamie Collins was absent for the earlier meeting between these two teams. According to the Boston Herald's Jeff Howe, Collins should be able to play in this game despite being limited in practice with a back injury.
Fellow linebacker Dont'a Hightower is listed as questionable for this game, per Patriots.com, but he could be a difference-maker if he plays a full four quarters. Britton noted how his absence affected the Patriots' run-stopping abilities in Week 10:
It was a tight end screen to Denver's Owen Daniels toward the end of the second quarter. The play gained 8 innocuous yards. It also knocked Dont'a Hightower out of action.
Before the linebacker suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament while tackling Daniels, the Denver running game had done next to nothing, picking up 46 yards on 16 carries (an average of 2.9 per carry). On the first snap with Hightower on the sideline, Ronnie Hillman ran right at Hightower's replacement, Jerod Mayo, and delivered as long a run as the Broncos had had all game — 9 yards. On the next play, he broke a Mayo tackle in the backfield on a toss and ran 19 yards to the end zone for the touchdown that got Denver back into the game.
The Broncos ran the ball 16 times with Hightower out, gaining 133 yards for an average of 8.3 per carry. In overtime, C.J. Anderson's 48-yard touchdown run around the left side won the Nov. 29 game.
Brady threw for 280 yards and three touchdowns against the Broncos in Week 12, making him one of the few quarterbacks to find success playing Denver this season. He'll have a healthy Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski in this game, which could mean a similar performance Sunday. Edelman racked up 100 yards receiving against the Chiefs, while Gronkowski picked up two touchdowns.
Denver is going to be hard-pressed to contain both of these players. Edelman can line up out wide, in the slot or in the backfield. Belichick and his staff can certainly cook up schemes to keep him away from Denver's elite cover cornerbacks in Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib.
Gronk is a nightmare for any team to cover, but Bleacher Report analyst Chris Simms suggests in the video below that Broncos safety T.J. Ward has what it takes to stop the league's best tight end:
The over/under for Sunday's contest is at just 44.5 points, nearly 10 points fewer than what the two teams combined for in the regular season (six of those points did come in overtime).
While it's difficult to imagine these two combining for much more than 45 points, especially if the weather is bad, it's by no means crazy to think they will combine for far less than that total. Twenty points could be a tough barrier for either team to crack without help from defensive or special teams touchdowns.
Who wins this game?
If the Broncos can manage to contain Gronkowski, the Patriots offense is going to be hard-pressed to pick up big chunks of yardage. The Steven Jackson-led running game has been—at best—anemic, so Brady would have to dink and dunk his way down the field with Edelman and Danny Amendola while the Broncos bleed clock behind a two-pronged rushing attack.
A defensive struggle is very much on the table in this one, but offensive personnel and the quarterback edge favors the Patriots.
Prediction: New England 23, Denver 17