The AFC Championship Game: New England v. Denver

Published: Jan 19, 2014 04:19am EST
By Michael Owen, Sports Writer for Konsume Sports

Please Note: This article was updated Jan 19, 2014 @ 04:19am EST

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Denver, CO) In a historic 2013 campaign, Peyton Manning shattered Tom Brady's single-season record for TD passes, so it's apropos that these future Hall of Famers will meet in the 2013 AFC Championship game. It's a shame these two stars both play in the AFC as America will be (and HAVE been) robbed of a chance to ever see 2 of the most decorated QB's in NFL history play against each other in a Super Bowl.

As we all know, it will be these marquee quarterbacks that will get most of the attention going into this game, but let’s face it, these are the playoffs and historically, this game will be decided by rushing and defense.

In the backfield, both teams feature a group of running backs that are on top of their games coming into this weekend. With Knowshon Moreno and LeGarrette Blount heading each respective backfield, it seems that both QB's can rely on the starting tailbacks to get those hard fought yards. That said, the depth of the Patriots backfield makes it less of a toss-up. The durability and experience of Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen to go along with Blount is far superior to Denver rookie Montee Ball.

The players that Brady and Manning will hand off to this weekend figure to be crucial in determining the winner. Manning will be giving the ball to former Georgia standout Moreno.  The Broncos have a history of success with Georgia tailbacks as they won 2 Super Bowls with Terrell Davis who also went to Georgia. Moreno had a career-high 1,038 rushing yards this season, and the Patriots will be very familiar with him after he had a career-best 224 yards in the November meeting.

Last Sunday Moreno grinded out 23 carries for 82 yards along with a touchdown that helped Denver win the possession battle against San Diego in the Divisional round.  The Broncos enjoyed over 35 minutes of possession in a 24-17 win over the Chargers. Moreno had offseason knee surgery after being limited to only 15 games over the past two seasons but now is one game away from a trip to the Super Bowl that will be about an hour's drive from Middletown, N.J., where he grew up.

While New England knows what the Broncos have in Moreno and are pretty clear on how they’ll use him, Denver can't say the same about LeGarrette Blount, who rushed for a measly 13 yards on only 2 carries in their November meeting. But this is a different ballplayer now. Finally getting comfortable in his role and Coach Bill Belichick’s system, Blount has asserted himself with a career-high 189 rushing yards in a 34-20 win over Buffalo in Week 17, and 166 with four TDs in last Saturday's 43-22 destruction of Indianapolis.

"I think they do a good job with personnel and he's obviously another different weapon but he's big and physical," Denver coach John Fox said. "He's got skins on the wall in this league as far as a running back.” Fox got very familiar with Blount’s work while coaching for the Carolina Panthers, as he got to face Blount and his Tampa Bay Bucs twice a year.

The emergence of a New England running game (that also features Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen) has made Brady’s job easier.  Brady, who got sacked 40 times this year (his highest total since 2001) was challenged with a no depth or consistency at receiver. Having said that, Brady's best effort this season came against Denver, when he completed 34 of 50 passes for 344 yards for three TD’s and zero picks. The first meeting between these two teams certainly was possibly one of the most exciting games of the season as New England (13-4) came back despite a 24-0 halftime deficit for a 34-31 overtime win in Foxborough. On the other hand, Manning was held to only 150 yards, a 52.8 completion percentage and a 70.4 passer rating -- by far his worst game in this record setting year.

With nothing ever a given in the NFL, there's a chance that this could be the last time these two rivals face each other in the postseason.  Currently Brady holds the edge on Manning 2-1 in the playoffs while also having a dominant 10-4 total record against Manning as well. In fact, when the two quarterbacks have played against one another in the postseason, the winner has gone on to win the Super Bowl. That proves how pivotal this game is; 

Manning was an amazing story this year as he picked apart NFL defenses for 55 touchdown passes. Brady set the previous mark of 50 in 2007 when the Patriots nearly completed an historic 19-0 season before an upset loss in the Super Bowl to a New York Giants team led by Manning's brother, Eli. The Broncos (14-3) are favored this time as the No. 1 seed with home-field advantage, but Brady, who returned to practice Thursday after sitting out Wednesday because of illness, said on his weekly radio show on WEEI-Boston, that he actually likes being the underdog.

"I'm sure no one's going to pick us to win this week," said Brady, who will make his eighth AFC title game appearance and third straight. "We've had our backs against the wall for a while. Really, the whole season we've lost players, and teams have really counted us out."

Brady has been without his top five targets from 2012 for most of this season, With Wes Welker having gone to Denver’s sideline, Rob Gronkowski limited to seven games before season-ending knee surgery and Aaron Hernandez in jail facing murder charges. Julian Edelman has stepped up with a team-high 105 catches  that were good for 1,056 yards.

Pat’s offensive coordinator and former Bronco head coach Josh McDaniel stated on Thursday: "I think he's really led our receiving group with a tremendous amount of toughness, consistency. He practices hard, prepares hard, he's on top of his game plan." McDaniels will be returning to Denver for the first time since he posted an 11-17 record before being fired during the 2010 season.

On the Bronc’s side of the ball, Manning will be able to utilize tight end Julius Thomas, who missed the November meeting due to a knee injury. Last week in the victory against the Chargers, Thomas led Denver with 75 yards on six catches not to mention coming up with a huge catch on 3rd-and-17 in the closing minutes to help seal the win.

"Excellent player -- size, speed, he's a good vertical receiver, he gets down the field on seams and flags and over routes and wheel routes, like he caught last week and things like that,"  historically vague New England coach Bill Belichick said on Thursday. "He's also good on catch-and-run plays."

Welker on the other hand will want to try and make up for his major blunder in the first game when he failed to inform his teammates that he was not going to field Ryan Allen's punt in overtime. Teammate Tony Carter ran into it, and the Patriots recovered the ball that lead to Stephen Gostkowski's 31-yard overtime winner with only 1:56 left.

Allen hurt his shoulder in the second quarter last week against the Colts, so Gostkowski punted the rest of the game. Allen returned to practice Wednesday, but Belichick did not say who will handle the punting duties.

OUTLOOK: the Pats have dominated Denver over the last several years, having won 4 in a row and 6 of the last 7. Note also that Manning is just 6-11 against Bill Belichick in his career, his 2nd-worst win percentage against one coach (he has a losing record against only TWO coaches and Belichick has beaten him more than TWICE as often as any other head coach). Factor in also that Manning has a piss poor record in the playoffs while Brady has more post season wins (18) than any quarterback in the history of the NFL I find it very difficult to pick against the Patriots despite the Bronco’s home cooking. 

PREDICTION: Patriots 37 Broncos 31 in yet another barnburner.

Enjoy your ball this weekend.  It should be fun.


 

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Michael Owen
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