The statistics are abundant this week for the AFC Championship game. Clawing out everything from Brady’s record in Denver (2-6) to Peyton Manning’s record in the playoffs (11-12) to Bill Belichick’s record against a Wade Phillips defense (4-1), but statistics can only get you so far. More significant than any combination of numbers or complex algorithm, as a fan, it saddens me to see that this, in all likelihood, will be the final act of the most legendary installment of sports theater to date…Brady-Manning XVII.
For my entire career as a Patriots fan this rivalry has been intact. The Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning rivalry. It is entirely clear to anyone with a sense of football knowledge and sense of football history that Brady has won this career-long battle. It used to be the ultimate bar argument. Nonetheless, its still a rivalry that is rich in history thanks to some disappointing games in the RCA Dome and some terrific Manning cold weather games in Foxboro. Unfortunately for the NFL, there is no marketable rivalry like Manning-Brady coming up on the horizon.
Two Very Different Paths
On January 19th, 2014, Brady and the Patriots lost 26-16 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in a game that New England was never really in. The Patriots’ first touchdown of that game (a 7-yard pass to Julian Edelman) came with 5:34 remaining in the fourth quarter. To show you just how lacking Brady’s weapons were in the game, Austin Collie had four receptions for the Patriots. It was a frustrating end to a season in which, only a month and half earlier, the Patriots mounted one of the most impressive comebacks in recent memory against that same Broncos team.
In the time since that AFC Championship, the two teams and the two quarterbacks have been on very different paths. One one hand, Manning and the Broncos went on to lose the Super Bowl handily to the Seahawks and then lose in the divisional round the next season to Andrew Luck’s Indianapolis Colts. Manning then started this season with a horrid 17 interceptions before getting benched in Week 10. On the other hand, The Patriots would defeat both the Colts and the Seahawks on their way to Brady and Belichick’s fourth Super Bowl victory in Super Bowl 49.
Two very different paths, but once again they converge this Sunday at Mile High.
Patriots Defense vs. Broncos Offense
Charcandrick West (who’s name we continuously mispronounced while watching the game) looked decent with 17 rushes for 61 yards and a touchdown, but was never really a weapon for the Chiefs. Patriots were also able to shutdown the running backs in the passing game and even forced Knile Davis to fumble on one of his receptions.
It’s been said all week, the Patriots need to stop C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman if they want to win this game. If they can hold each running back to about 60 yards on 10-15 carries, New England will win the game because we all know Manning isn’t beating the Patriots deep to Demaryius Thomas like he used to. I have to imagine that Manning’s favorite target will be the shifty Emmanuel Sanders who will work in the middle of the field, behind a Patriots front seven that will be missing Jerod Mayo.
Patriots Offense vs. Broncos Defense
With Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots offense is an absolute spectacle. Like an addictive Netflix series combined with a Buzzfeed cooking video shared on Facebook, the Patriots offense, in eight to twelve installments every game, is captivating to the point where you can’t look away because you know the finished product is going to be beautiful.
Broncos cornerback Chris Harris is reportedly a game-time decision which downgrades a potent Denver defense especially disappointing for Denver now that Brady has his full catalog of offensive weapons sans Dion Lewis.
The offensive line did a great job last week even with the Chiefs’ Justin Houston sidelined for most of the game. Sebastian Vollmer kept Tamba Hali off Brady and the interior line did a good job giving Brady a pocket to throw.
And then there’s the Patriots running game. Steven Jackson led the Patriots with sixteen yards on six carriers. Brady added six attempts including an inspiring 10-yard run followed by a quarterback sneak for a touchdown. The Patriots had only 39 rushing yards in their last meeting with the Broncos, so I’m not too worried about the lack of a running game, especially when Edelman and Danny Amendola in the short passing game are essentially your running backs.
As always, the one thing I fear is Denver defenders going low on Gronkowski. That has been a point all week with Harris saying that going at Gronkowski’s knees is the only way to take him down.
“You gotta hit him low, man–hit him in his knees. That’s the best chance you have at hitting him. You gotta take his legs out or hold on and wait for everybody, wait for the gang to come on and tackle him.”
Gronkowski, who we all know is really a 12-year old fifth grader at heart, had a little fun with that news:
After being essentially sidelined in the regular season finale at Miami, I felt like the Kansas City game would be a break out game for Gronkowski and I’m anticipating much of the same against the Broncos; however, its now Edelman’s turn. He had some huge catches last week and finally shook off any rust from the foot injury.
Brady doesn’t need to rely on Austin Collie or Michael Hoomanawanui. Brady doesn’t need to rely on Scott Chandler or Brandon LaFell. This time Tom’s got Edelman and Gronkowski.
I’m taking the Patriots. New England 38 Denver 17.