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NFL Playoff Preview: AFC Championship
By Matt Horkman

This Sunday, Denver meets New England to determine who represents the AFC in Super Bowl XLVIII. The story leading up to this game is the respective legacies of New England quarterback Tom Brady and Denver quarterback Peyton Manning. It is yet another chapter in their rivalry, and with both players' career winding down, this story could soon reach a conclusion.

In 14 games between the two legendary quarterbacks, Brady has won 10 meetings. However, a touchdown or less has decided six of the last seven games. If history is an indicator, this weekend’s AFC Championship should be a classic. 

Greatest Offense Ever?

If you believe the San Diego Chargers, the 2013 Denver Broncos are the greatest offense in NFL history.

Based on statistics, it’s not a far-reaching argument. The 2013 Broncos are the only team in NFL history to score at least 600 points. Manning set NFL records with 55 touchdown passes and 5,477 passing yards. They’re the first team in NFL history to have five players with double-digit touchdowns in a single season. They’re also respectable running the ball, finishing No. 15 with 1,873 yards.

Despite the lofty numbers, it seems premature to anoint the ‘13 Broncos the greatest offense in league history. The game is drastically different today in comparison to even 15, 16 years ago. Defenses can’t hit quarterbacks high or low and defensive backs get no leeway in defending wide receivers downfield. As a result, NFL offenses are making so-called video game numbers look like child’s play.

Still, for this one week, Denver‘s offense doesn‘t need to be great to win. New England finished No. 26 in yards allowed. They gave up 400-plus yards four times this season, including 412 to the Broncos in week 12. The Patriots do deserve credit for keeping their opponents out of the end zone, as they’re No. 10 in points allowed. In fact, they’ve allowed just 30-plus points in four games this season.

From a talent standpoint, though, they cannot match man-for-man with Denver's offense. The expectation is cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard will cover wide receivers Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas. With Talib and Dennard occupied, that’ll open up holes for tight end Julius Thomas, who didn’t play in New England’s 34-31 overtime victory in week 12, to exploit. The Patriots are no strangers to defending all-pro tight ends. They did a great job with Atlanta’s Tony GonJulius Thomaszalez and New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham, but Denver‘s offense can beat you in more ways than the Falcons and Saints can.

New England head coach Bill Belichick is a defensive mastermind. He's getting more out of this defense than any other coach would, but it may take his finest game plan to slow down a healthy Denver offense.

Overcoming Injuries

A weaken conference and superb coaching from Belichick has elevated the Patriots into this game, despite a plethora of injuries on both sides of the ball.

Defensively, the Patriots are without inside linebackers Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo, and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. That’s the middle of their defense gone. The omissions of Mayo and Wilfork hurt New England’s run defense, which finished the regular-season No. 30 in the NFL. The Broncos took full advantage of this vulnerability in week 12, when running back Knowshon Moreno rushed for 224 yards on 34 carries. He didn’t rush for even 100 yards in any other game this season.

Offensively, the Patriots are without tight end Rob Gronkowski and offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer. The latter’s injury doesn’t get much press, but the absence of Gronkowski has significantly affected New England‘s offense.

In the seven games Gronkowski played in, Brady averaged 315 passing yards and about 2 touchdowns per game. In the nine games without him, he averaged just 237.5 passing yards. The Patriots also scored 32 points per game with Gronkowski in the lineup. Without him, they’re averaging just 24.4 points per game. While New England was victorious in week 12, they also had their all-pro tight end. His absence changes the way the Patriots approach offense, so the week 12 victory might as well be ancient history.

The Patriots enter this game leaning on their running game, especially inside the red zone. Denver -- unlike Indianapolis -- must adjust their defense. Brady commands respect, so most teams fear him throwing the ball, but the lack of quality pass catchers makes this a bizarre circumstance. Simply put, his pass catchers don’t make him as threatening throwing the ball as he normally is.

Therefore, Denver must focus on stopping the run in order to force Brady to throw the ball. That sounds crazy, but Brady averaged about 45 pass attempts in New England’s four losses. The Patriots would like to keep that number between 25 and 35. If his attempts are above 40, then Denver’s defense is doing their job.

Peyton’s Legacy

It’s important to take a step back and just appreciate how great of a player Manning is. He isn’t the most physically impressive quarterback in league history. His mobility is limited and we’ve seen stronger arms, yet Manning endures because of his dedication and preparation. Peyton Manning

He recently admitted to seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, so he won’t have many more opportunities to solidify his legacy. For Manning, the absence of a second Super Bowl title makes his career somewhat unfulfilled.

Most great quarterbacks in history have multiple Super Bowl titles. They also have extraordinary success in the postseason, which is evident by their multiple Super Bowl appearances. The two most notable examples are John Elway and Joe Montana. Elway is one of two quarterbacks (Brady) to start in five Super Bowls. He had a 14-7 playoff record and finished his career with back-to-back Super Bowl titles. Montana was 16-7 in the playoffs and is one of two quarterbacks (Terry Bradshaw) to win four Super Bowls. He’s also the only player in NFL history to win three Super Bowl MVP awards.

Losing this game damages Manning’s legacy. There’s no question about it. The more his teams lose in the postseason, the more he goes down in the same breath as Brett Favre and Dan Marino instead of Elway and Montana.

It also influences how football historians will compare him to Brady. Brady is 10-4 against Manning, but the duo has split AFC championship games against each other. From an historical standpoint, if Manning can take two of three from Brady in AFC title bouts, he’ll all of a sudden compare more favorably to his archrival.

Brady’s Legacy

Football is the ultimate team sport, so you hate to make a game about just two players on the field. Nevertheless, Brady and Manning have been vying for the top spot in the NFL for over a decade now. This is not just two quarterbacks playing for the right to go to the Super Bowl. These are arguably the two greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

In my view, both are already on the Mount Rushmore of quarterbacks with Elway and Montana. Still, neither Brady nor Manning simply wants to be one of the best. They both want to be the best. This mentality sets them apart from most individuals that play this game.
Tom Brady
Brady can cement his status above Manning with a win on Sunday. Denver has more talent than New England does. Most recognize the shortcomings of the Patriots' roster, yet here they are one game away from the Super Bowl. The fact they've gotten this far speaks volumes to the ability of Brady and Belichick to elevate players.

A win over Denver and Manning puts them in uncharted territory. Brady would become the first quarterback in NFL history to start six Super Bowls. He’d have an opportunity to join Bradshaw and Montana as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to win four. He’d also have beaten his archrival on the road to get there, extending his playoff record over Manning to 3-1.

And he would’ve done it with an inferior team.

And the Winner Is…

Both teams have serious flaws. The Patriots are undermanned on both sides of the ball, while Denver’s defense just isn’t very good. They rank 19th in yards allowed and gave up an average of 24.9 points per game, which was 22nd in the NFL. Denver’s high-octane offense has done a nice job of covering up their defense’s flaws.

Because of New England's lack of skill on offense, many are calling this season Brady’s finest or one of his best. I don’t agree with that. Brady has been off at times this year. He has missed throws and the absence of Gronkowski clearly hurts his play.

I do think, however, that this is one of Belichick’s finest coaching jobs. For all the Brady versus Manning hype, it’s really Belichick versus Manning. He’s the one conjuring up a game plan to defend the four-time NFL MVP. I have no doubt Belichick has enough tricks up his sleeve to stop Manning, but I doubt whether he has the pieces in place to implement those tricks.

With a strong running game behind him, Manning gets arguably the second biggest win of his career and the Broncos return to the Super Bowl for the first time in 15 years.

Broncos 28 Patriots 23

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