AFC Championship Game 2016: Winner, Score Predictions for Patriots vs. Broncos

Mike Norris@@MikeNorrisBRFeatured ColumnistJanuary 21, 2016

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 19:  Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots congratulates  Peyton Manning #18 of the Denver Broncos after the Broncos defeated the Patriots 26 to 16 during the AFC Championship game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 19, 2014 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The 2016 AFC Championship Game between the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos is much more than just Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning.

But the future Hall of Fame quarterbacks dominate the headlines when they aren't playing on the same field, so it's only natural for the talk to center around them this week.

Of course there are other factors to consider when the Patriots visit the Broncos Jan. 24, such as the health of New England wide receiver Julian Edelman and the possibility this could be the culmination of Manning's career.

Let's take a look at those storylines along with a prediction of which team will represent the AFC in Super Bowl 50:

Anticipating the Matchup

We'll get to the action on the field soon, but first let's look at the quarterbacks.

No matter how many times these two face each other, it's noteworthy. They both are going down as two of the best quarterbacks of this era—and possibly ever.

Here's a look at how the two have fared against each other in the past, per Bleacher Report:

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The 17th time the two meet could very well be the last considering both are approaching 40, and Manning has hinted at retirement.

However, the Broncos quarterback is doing his best to downplay the matchup, although Steve Buckley of the Boston Herald isn't buying it:

Manning made a funny yesterday during his postgame interview on CBS when he said, “To kind of quote Bill Belichick, we’ll be on to New England.” He also pulled out the old line about how quarterbacks never really face each other, and that “. . . it’ll be the Broncos vs. the Patriots.”

Yeah. OK.

No matter what either quarterback says, Brady vs. Manning 17 has a chance to be remembered forever—if only for the fact it may never happen again.

Keys to the Game

On the field there will be much more to watch than just the quarterbacks. The biggest key to the game could be Edelman. The wide receiver missed the Patriots' final seven games with an injury but came back in the divisional round against the Kansas City Chiefs to catch 10 passes for 100 yards, including this somewhat-lucky game-clincher:

Questions surrounded his health after he was seen in the X-ray room following the win over the Chiefs, but Edelman said he wasn't worried about his status for the Broncos game, per Mike Reiss of ESPN.com.

"Everyone's sore," Edelman said. "I finished the game and feel good enough to get ready to prepare for next week."

The slot receiver adds another dimension to the pass game for Brady. Without a true running game, the Patriots need all the help through the air they can get against a Denver defense that allows a league-low 199.6 yards per game.

While it seems Manning is healthy after missing part or all of eight games this season, his production still has not been on the same level as it has during most of his career.

He did not throw an interception in the divisional-round game against the Pittsburgh Steelers or in Week 17 when he filled in during the second half for the injured Brock Osweiler against the San Diego Chargers. But he hasn't exactly been lighting up the stat sheet:

Peyton Manning: Last Two Games
Week 17 vs. Chargers596900
Divisional Round vs. Steelers213722200

Manning most likely isn't going to throw for 300-plus yards and multiple touchdowns, so he needs to be more strategic than heroic. If the 39-year-old can continue to play mistake-free football and let his defense do the heavy lifting, the Broncos have a shot. 

However, if he gives the ball to Brady via turnovers, and the Patriots work with short fields, New England will be playing in its seventh Super Bowl since 2002.

And the Winner is...

The Broncos may be at home, but even the oddsmakers aren't giving them a great shot to win. Per Odds Shark, Brady and the Patriots are picked to stroll into Denver and come away with a victory by a field-goal margin.

That's actually being pretty nice.

With an extra week of preparation, Brady and the Patriots sliced and diced a Kansas City defense that hadn't been pushed around much during an 11-game win streak to the tune of 27 points and 340 total yards.

Of course New England doesn't have an extra week or the advantage of playing in Gillette Stadium Sunday, but it's clearly the better team, despite playing the top-seeded Broncos as the No. 2. seed.

New England vs. Denver: Head-to-Head
CategoryNew EnglandDenver
Points Allowed/Game19.718.5
Scoring Margin9.43.7
Rushing Yards/Game87.8107.4
Rushing Yards Against/Game98.883.6
Passing Yard/Game286.7248.1
Passing Yards Against/Game240.7199.6
Turnover Ratio+7-4

Although Denver clearly has the better defense, New England's has been solid most of the year. The Broncos' margin for error is much lower than the Patriots', which gives New England the edge.

Brady will look to use All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski as much as he can to wear down the talented Broncos defense. Manning, who still looks a bit rusty, will be forced into at least two turnovers and the Patriots will walk away with a victory and a chance for a fifth Super Bowl.

Prediction: New England wins, 28-13.