And then there were two.
Denver took advantage of the games only turnover to pick up a come from behind victory over Pittsburgh 23-16. New England jumped out to a 21-6 lead then held off a late Chiefs’ charge to advance to the AFC Championship game for the 5th consecutive season. In the process, the NFL gets its much-anticipated Peyton vs. Brady matchup while the fans get, hopefully, a good game. Brady and Manning are ranked one and two in all-time postseason passing yards, touchdowns and completions. So to call this game anything less than a big deal is doing it an injustice. If this truly is the last time Manning and Brady will matchup, with any luck hopefully it will be an epic game.
New England at Denver
Peyton didn’t produce the typical performance that we have come to expect, but he did take care of the football against Pittsburgh. In fact Manning, who this season threw the fourth most interceptions (17) in his eighteen year career (in 10 games), has not turned the ball over since returning to the lineup in Week 17.
That stat is probably more important for Peyton and the Broncos than the gaudy passing numbers he has put up in the past. The Broncos will need to control the game on the ground (179 total rushing yards, 5.6/carry in Week 12 win) to beat New England and limiting turnovers is a great way to accomplish that goal. The second key area for Denver will be its defense on third down. In their Week 12 matchup, Denver beat New England 30-24 in part because they limited the Patriots for 2/13 on third down. The Broncos’ defense was able to shut down the run game (16 carries, 39 yards, 2.4/carry), which put New England in multiple third and long opportunities. Finally, Denver will need to have a great game on special teams. New England made a critical mistake in this area back in Week 12; muffing a punt return in the 4th quarter which gave Denver life and ultimately to their overtime win.
Tom Brady and the New England Patriots are trying to downplay the drama induced by the Manning matchup but that’s not going to happen. These are two of the best signal callers in the history of the NFL and the matchup that fans around the world want to see. Brady has faced Manning 16 times in his career so it’s safe to say he is very familiar with the future Hall of Famer. Brady’s teams have won 11 of those 16 meetings, but he is only 2-2 in the playoffs against Manning and just 2-6 in Denver. The biggest key for New England might not be Brady, but rather the health of the team. In Week 12, New England’s All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski was carted off the field in the fourth quarter after receiving a low blow to the knees from Broncos safety Darian Stewart. Gronk, who is healthy, is without a doubt geared up to put on a show and shut down the Broncos trash talk.
Don’t forget that New England also played that game without Brady’s safety blanket wide receiver Julian Edelman. However, the Patriots lost linebacker Jerod Mayo for season (shoulder injury suffered last week against KC) and Pro Bowl linebacker Jamie Collins (back injury) is questionable. Losing those two will not make stopping the run easy for New England.
New England appears to be shorthanded on defense, but the offense will be firing on all cylinders. The Broncos will not be able to score enough points to win this game. And New England will move on to attempt to be the 1st repeat Super Bowl champion since they accomplished that feat in 2004.
Prediction: New England 28 Denver 17