AFC championship preview: Clash of Broncos, Patriots to renew historic rivalry between Peyton Manning, Tom Brady (6 items)
NFL fans are buzzing with anticipation as the AFC and NFC title games draw near, games that will showcase some of the most compelling matchups in history.
In the AFC championship game, the New England Patriots will head to Denver to play the Broncos this weekend. While the Patriots have been the poster boys of success over the past decade, it is the Broncos that have had the success in recent memory, capturing the first seed in the AFC for the past two years.
The Broncos-Patriots matchup this weekend will also add another chapter to the well-documented rivalry between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady — two of the all-time great quarterbacks. As they have for years, fans of both quarterbacks continue to endlessly debate one another on every social media platform as to which quarterback's legacy is better. Manning and Brady now can impact that legacy for better or worse, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
To get a good idea of what type of action will take place Sunday, it is important to look at the type of season each team has had and things to watch for in the matchup.
You can follow Mitch Kunzler on Twitter at @MitchKunzler.
1 of 6. Game information
Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver
TV coverage: CBS
2 of 6. The Patriots' journey
RB Shane Vereen (broken wrist, short-term injured reserve, 8 games)
WR Danny Amendola (torn groin, 3 games)
TE Zach Sudfeld (hamstring, 1 game)
WR Matthew Slater (broken wrist, 4 games)
DL Vince Wilfork (torn Achilles, injured reserve)
RB Steven Ridley (thigh bruise, 1 game)
S Tavon Wilson (hamstring, 3 games)
DT Tommy Kelly (knee, injured reserve)
RB Leon Washington (ankle, 5 games)
LB Jerod Mayo (torn pectoral, injured reserve)
CB Aqib Talib (hip, 3 games)
WR Danny Amendola (concussion, 1 game)
RT Sebastian Vollmer (broken leg, injured reserve)
S Steve Gregory (broken thumb, 2 games)
CB Alfonzo Dennard (knee, 2 of next 3 games)
TE Michael Hoomanawanui (knee, 3 games)
WR Aaron Dobson (foot, 3 games and counting)
RT Marcus Cannon (ankle, 2 games)
WR Kenbrell Thompkins (hip, 2 games and counting)
TE Rob Gronkowski (torn ACL, MCL, injured reserve)
Many of those injuries were to key players both offensively and defensively, and many thought that the amount of adversity the Patriots had to face was just too much to overcome.
But with a quarterback like Brady, nothing is impossible. Brady took a group of receivers full of players nobody had heard of, and led them to victory after victory.
Although it seemed that all odds were against them, the Patriots had Bill Belichick on the sidelines and Brady at quarterback, which seems to be the only foundation they need to have a successful season.
The Patriots made adjustments throughout the year, the largest of which was the transformation of their offense. At the start of the season, they seemed to be up to their usual pass-happy tricks, but with the injuries to Gronkowski and Amendola, they were forced to reinvent themselves as only the Patriots can, and have introduced a devastating rushing attack.
Running back LeGarrette Blount has spearheaded the Patriots' rushing identity, running for 431 yards (143.6 yards per game), including eight touchdowns in the past three games.
Despite the injuries, New England made the best of it and ended with a 12-4 record, which was good enough to capture the second seed in the playoffs, and a bye in the first round.
In the second round, the Patriots faced Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts, a team that had overcome a 28-point deficit to beat the Kansas City Chiefs the week before.
But the Colts never stood a chance. The Patriots capitalized on four interceptions from Luck, and behind Blount's 166 yards and four touchdowns, were able to coast to the 43-22 win.
3 of 6. The Broncos' journey
To start off the season, former New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker signed a two-year contract with the Broncos, which added to their already elite offense. Other than Welker, the Broncos have Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas as targets for Manning, making one of the most formidable passing offenses in the history of the game.
Not only was the Broncos' passing offense dominant, but their rushing attack was dangerous as well. Running back Knowshon Moreno rushed for 1,038 yards for the season with 10 touchdowns, completing Denver's offense as the two-headed monster that it has been all season.
The Broncos led the NFL in total offense, with 457.3 yards per game, and set the league's single-season record in total points scored with 596.
Manning shattered nearly every available record this season in what will go down in history as one of the greatest seasons ever by an NFL quarterback. Manning set NFL records in passing yards in a season (5,477), touchdown passes in a season (55) and most games with four or more touchdown passes (8).
The Broncos' defense is the only thing that could slightly be considered a weakness, with the injury bug biting them during the season. Even then, the Broncos were tied for seventh in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing only 101.6 yards per game.
This season has been nothing short of spectacular for Manning and the Broncos, and they ended with a 13-3 record, earning the top playoff seed in the AFC.
After their first round bye, the Broncos hosted the San Diego Chargers, a team that had beaten them in Denver earlier in the season. But the Broncos took off on a 17-0 lead, and by the time the Chargers started their comeback, the deficit was just too great. Denver went on to win 24-17.
4 of 6. Previous matchup
It got ugly early for the Patriots as the Broncos' offense, defense and special teams put points on the board in the first quarter. By halftime, it looked as though the game was over, Denver leading New England 24-0. But as many are well aware, with Tom Brady under center, the game is never over.
Brady led the Patriots with 31 unanswered points and took the lead in the fourth quarter. With just over three minutes left in the game, a touchdown pass from Manning tied the game at 31-31, which led to the game going into overtime.
In overtime, both teams exchanged punts before special teams confusion caused the Broncos to fumble the ball at their 13-yard line, which the Patriots recovered. After a Stephen Gostkowski field goal, the Patriots won 34-31.
Brady finished the game passing for 344 yards and three touchdowns. Denver running back Knowshon Moreno ran for 224 yards and a score.
Look for the Broncos to establish Moreno as a rushing threat once again, and if they can control the tempo of the game, then they have a great chance at winning. As for the Patriots, they will likely rely more on their running game than they did in November, but if the game starts to get out of hand, don't be surprised if Brady opens up the same passing attack that he displayed earlier.
5 of 6. What to watch for
Blount had only two carriers in the Patriots' previous matchup with the Broncos. After rushing for four touchdowns last week, he will certainly have a bigger role to play.
The NFL leader in passing yards has never gone on to win the Super Bowl. They are 0-47 all-time in attempts. As Peyton Manning led the league in passing yards this year, he could become the first to ever accomplish it.
Brady and Manning have faced each other 14 times in their careers, with Brady winning 10 of the games. In the playoffs, they have matched up three times, with Brady winning two of them.
With a win this weekend, Manning will no longer have a losing record in the playoffs, a record that is currently 10-11.