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AFC Championship Game preview: Patriots-Broncos

At last, the NFL's final four teams have emerged, and a trip to Super Bowl XLVIII is on the line. Let's take a closer look at both of Sunday's conference title games.



The backstory

The Football Gods are smiling.

In the fading light of a January day out west, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will meet again.

I can't help but wonder if Sunday's AFC Championship Game between the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos might be our final look at these two quarterbacking giants going head-to-head with so much at stake.

Fourteen times they've waged war, with Brady winning 10 of those 14 matchups, including two of three in the playoffs.

They last squared off in a narrative-busting classic in Week 12, won 34-31 by New England. Eight weeks later, both squads look different.

The Patriots invade Denver without tight end Rob Gronkowski, a loss that has forced coach Bill Belichick to once again reimagine an ever-changing offense down the stretch. The Broncos, meanwhile, have been stripped of havoc-wreaking pass rusher Von Miller on a defense -- like New England's -- that can't afford another injury.

Under pressure

Peyton Manning, quarterback, Broncos:

The five-year, $96 million contract Manning signed with the Broncos in 2012 has only one successful outcome: Peyton hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on a February night below a haze of confetti.

Forget the high-flying offense, the scorched record books or the pre-snap wonderment. Manning's astonishing statistical achievements this season will mean little, in hindsight, if the Broncos crumble in January for a second straight year.

Manning's five losses at home in the playoffs are the most in league history. To be fair, he's played in more of those games than your average quarterback and his teams dropped those tilts by a combined 14 points. Peyton's clashes with Brady have also been tight, with six of their last seven decided by seven points or less.

Back in Week 12, Manning calmly guided the Broncos to a 24-0 lead, only to watch Brady and friends storm back for a three-point overtime win that saw Peyton throw for just 150 yards at 4.2 yards per pass on a cold, windy night in Gillette.

That comeback, the biggest of Brady's career, set the stage for Sunday's rematch. This time, it's on Peyton to alter the storyline.

Matchup to watch

Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount vs. Denver run defense:

LeGarrette Blount has rumbled for four-plus yards per carry in 10 of his last 11 games. He was barely used in New England's regular-season meeting with the Broncos (rushing just two times for 13 yards and a fumble), but Blount has become the workhorse du jour for a Patriots offense intent on attacking with the run.

Last weekend's winning playoff teams ran an average of 37.3 times, with New England undressing the Indianapolis Colts for 234 yards and six touchdowns on 46 attempts. Blount tied a Patriots postseason record with 166 rushing yards and came within one touchdown of tying an NFL record with four scores on the ground.

Blount has been running of late with visible power and burst, but the Broncos have grown surprisingly stout against the run. Denver ranked seventh in the league with 1,626 yards allowed, but that's partly the result of teams passing from the start to keep up with Manning's offense. After teams ran for 100-plus yards in six straight games against the Broncos, they've allowed just one team to do so since Week 13.

Along those lines, the Broncos have given up just 14.7 points per game and 120.2 fewer yards per tilt over their last three outings. During that stretch, nose tackle Terrance "Pot Roast" Knighton has been an unblockable behemoth, while first-round draft pick Sylvester Williams and veteran Paris Lenon have been a total load against the run.

If Blount can't churn out yardage and chew up the clock on Sunday, Denver will roll.

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Neither Manning nor Brady has performed particularly well in conference championships despite winning records in title games. Manning has five touchdown passes, five picks and a 76.7 passer rating, while Brady has seven scores through the air, nine interceptions and a 74.7 mark. ... Brady vs. Manning features the oldest combined age of two starting quarterbacks in any conference title game since John Elway battled Vinny "And the Jets" Testaverde in the 1998 AFC Championship. ... Brady has thrown just 75 passes over the last three weeks, the fewest of any three-game stretch in his career. ... The Patriots passer led the league in percentage of throws completed to his tight ends in 2011 and 2012, but was dead last in that category in 2013. ... The Broncos are the first team in NFL history to have five players with 10-plus touchdowns and four players with 10-plus receiving touchdowns.


Drowning in the white noise surrounding Manning vs. Brady, we tend to forget: There's much more going on here.

One-hundred and four other players and two coaching staffs will factor into a game that settles the AFC.

The Broncos are the clear favorites, but when we made our Super Bowl picks way back in August, I chose the Patriots to topple the Seahawks. Five months later, I still trust the combination of Brady and Belichick to deliver New England to the promised land.

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