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AFC Championship Game Preview: Can Peyton do it?

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The backstory


It was a long and winding season, but somehow we always end up in the same place. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots. The only difference is that this matchup will be defined by two very good defenses, and whether Manning and his offense are capable of rediscovering their form.

It's always tough to see the great players of your generation start to slow down, and for Manning that began during the end of the 2014 season. He played games on a torn quadriceps and then ended up missing time this season with a torn plantar fascia.

Every game, all season

Manning was 7-2 this season as a starter but threw just nine touchdown passes all season to 17 interceptions. After taking the starting job back from Brock Osweiler, Manning appeared rejuvenated in the playoffs against the Steelers, going 21 of 37 for 222 yards, with zero touchdowns and zero interceptions. While this did not seem like a typical Manning game, it was by far the best he's played in more than a month.

He was teased relentlessly for going down on a self-sack only to remain untouched, get back up and fire a 30-plus yard strike to Emmanuel Sanders. But Kubiak and the Broncos had to love it -- that's not something a man with a torn muscle in the bridge of his foot can do easily.

"I'd like to get in there early in the morning and maybe get it deleted off the game film if I could," Manning said.

Our advice? Do it again on Sunday. This could be the start of something incredible.

Under pressure


Manning will be feeling the heat on this one.

He is a quarterback in tune with his legacy and a player who can physically sense that the end is near. Time will tell if an offseason of healing can bring him back for one more victory lap, but at the moment, this looks like the last time Manning will have a chance to play in the Super Bowl. The way we grade and judge quarterbacks of our era is largely unfair -- purists will say Manning has nothing to prove as he bows out of the game. He helped revolutionize the sport and created countless promotions for coordinators and coaches working for him. But others will say Manning lacks the team accolades, namely a second Super Bowl, to go down as a better or even equal quarterback to Tom Brady. It's certainly not a situation you'd want to find yourself arguing at any Boston, Tennessee, Indianapolis or Denver-area bars.

Matchup to watch


Denver's offensive line vs. New England's front seven

The Broncos ran the ball well in spots against Pittsburgh last weekend, enough that C.J. Anderson was gaining almost five yards per touch. He showed exceptional burst for this time of year on a 34-yarder that ended up registering as his biggest play of the night. This carries over into Sunday because, quite simply, the Broncos will not survive if they don't run the football well. The Broncos need to keep their defense -- and Brady -- off the field for as long as possible. They also need to aid Manning, who will face a swarming defense that will dare him to throw deep all day. A run game can compress the defense to a point where some of the 10- to 15-yard throws will receive less attention than they would otherwise.

Mind-blowing stats


Brady vs. Manning edition!

This will be our fifth Brady vs. Manning matchup in the playoffs, which is the most head-to-head matchups between starting quarterbacks in NFL history, edging out Flacco/Brady (4), Young/Favre (4) and Terry Bradshaw/Ken Stabler (4). ... Manning is 2-1 against Brady in conference championship matchups. ... Brady has never defeated Manning on the road in the playoffs. ... For the seventh time in the last 10 years, the AFC will be represented in the Super Bowl by either Manning or Brady. ... The home quarterback has never lost a Brady/Manning game in the playoffs. ... However, Brady is 5-1 when the game kicks off with a temperature of less than 40 degrees. ... Brady's only two career wins in Denver came against Tim Tebow and Danny Kanell. ... Manning threw as many interceptions this season as Brady did in the last two combined. ... Brady has thrown more touchdown passes in Denver this season (3) than Peyton Manning (1).

Prediction


While the Chiefs provided a nice blueprint and the Broncos have a much better defense, Brady and Co. will manage to squeak out just enough points and play behind a defense that will thump an uncertain Broncos offense. We think Manning played better than statistics suggested last week, and that there might be something to Gary Kubiak's drop theory, but at the moment, it will require a pretty perfect performance in order to stop Matt Patricia's defense from reaching a second consecutive Super Bowl.

Patriots 24, Broncos 17

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