Yet less than two months later, after countless hours of rehab on his left foot, Manning has returned to the field as the Broncos and Patriots once again pushed their way into the AFC Championship Game.
Two future Hall of Famers will face each other for the 17th time in their careers, and for the fourth time in the AFC Championship Game -- all with a spot in Super Bowl 50 on the line.
ESPN NFL Nation Patriots reporter Mike Reiss and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold take a look at Sunday’s game:
Legwold: Mike, always start with the quarterbacks in a game like this. So, given the Patriots were so pass-first in their win over the Chiefs, do you think they’ll simply set Brady loose against the Broncos, too?
Reiss: No doubt about it, Jeff. Part of that is that they are limited personnel-wise at running back, where Steven Jackson (signed Dec. 22) is the lead power back, James White the top “sub back” and Brandon Bolden a versatile backup. But more than that is the fact they didn’t have receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola in the first meeting between the teams, and along with tight end Rob Gronkowski, they are Brady’s go-to guys. They’ll play to their strengths and that’s where they are strongest. I’m curious to see if the Broncos can create enough disruption to slow them down.
So, outside of the obvious, with Manning at quarterback over Brock Osweiler, what are the biggest personnel changes from what we saw in the Broncos’ 30-24 overtime win over the Patriots (in Week 12) to what we’ll see in the AFC Championship Game?
Legwold: The Broncos are fairly healthy, so the personnel won’t look all that different, but the offense the Broncos have run since Manning was re-inserted in the regular-season finale against the San Diego Chargers is closer to the one coach Gary Kubiak had envisioned. Manning’s foot was bothering him early in the season, even before he suffered a tear in the plantar fascia Nov. 8, so the Broncos didn’t play him under center much, if at all, in those games.
Since he was held out of seven starts, he has healed enough to play wherever the Broncos want. And while he hasn’t piled up numbers in the passing game like folks are used to, he has controlled the tempo and consistently checked the Broncos into run plays at the line of scrimmage that found the holes in the defense. Several times last weekend, Manning muted the Steelers’ blitz packages by checking out of the called pass play to a run that kept a second-half drive moving.
Coach Bill Belichick has faced Peyton Manning in more big games than anyone, it seems. What’s his book on Manning this season in an offense that is unlike what Manning has played in during his career?
Reiss: Without sharing his game plan, Belichick touched a bit on devising an approach to facing Manning, noting the variation and fluctuation is extreme because of his experience. Certainly there’s an aspect of a chess match before the snap, but given where we are now in Manning’s career and how he’s playing, that’s probably a bit overrated this time around. As Belichick said, sometimes you just have to line up and play, out-executing the opposition. Thus, in what would have been viewed as a bizarre plan a few years ago, stopping the run is going to be their first priority, and if that means putting the ball in Manning’s hands, they’ll take their chances. Manning still deserves respect, but it doesn’t take a football junkie like Belichick to see he’s not the same quarterback who could strike fear into opposing defenses.
Peyton vs. Brady, Chapter 17, here we go. Of the first 16, which one stands out to you the most, and why?
Legwold: In the regular season, the 2013 game is worth noting because that’s the year the Broncos became the first 600-point team in league history and Manning threw for a record 55 touchdowns. But in the Nov. 24 meeting that year, the Broncos had made the decision to largely take the ball out of Manning’s hands against Belichick’s defense -- he threw for a season-low 150 yards, while Knowshon Moreno rushed for 224 yards. The Broncos lost the game in overtime when a punt bounced off cornerback Tony Carter and the Patriots recovered at the Denver 13-yard line. Stephen Gostkowski kicked the game-winning field goal three plays later.
The playoff meeting that year sticks out, as well, as the Broncos earned a Super Bowl trip after current Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib (then with the Patriots) was injured in the game on a collision with former Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker (then with the Broncos). So the Patriots had to play the Broncos’ high-powered offense the rest of the way without their best player in coverage. As a result, Manning threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns in the game, while Brady threw for 277 yards and a touchdown.
In the Nov. 29 game this season, the Broncos pounded out 179 yards rushing. Do the Patriots have concerns the Broncos would have a chance to control tempo, and limit Brady’s touches, if they do it again?
Reiss: Yes, this is one of their biggest concerns based on what happened in the first meeting. The secondary, in particular safety Duron Harmon, didn’t tackle well. The front struggled at times as well. One thing that could help the Patriots is that linebacker Jamie Collins, who didn’t play in the prior meeting because of an illness, should be available. And fellow starting linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who left the game in the second quarter with a knee injury, is also back. When Hightower was in the game, the Broncos had 15 rushes for 43 yards. Once he left, the numbers spiked to 17 carries for 136 yards and three touchdowns.
There will be a lot of focus on the quarterbacks, but if you had to pick another player or position that warrants the same spotlight, who/what would it be?
Legwold: In looking at all of the times the Broncos have faced Brady since his first year as a starter in 2001, there have been only two games in 14 overall when the Broncos have sacked Brady at least once and intercepted him in the same game. One of those was in 2001 and the other was in 2014, when Brady still finished with four touchdowns. And the Broncos’ best chance to move on will require Denver’s marquee players on defense -- Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Chris Harris Jr. and Talib -- to at least slow Brady and the Patriots' offense down some. The Broncos fully expect to get the same kind of pace and play calls from the Patriots as the Chiefs got -- 14 consecutive pass plays to open the game by New England and just 14 rushing attempts overall, with six of those from Brady. So, if the Broncos become yet another team that can’t pressure Brady or at least get him off schedule and make him reset from time to time, there isn’t much chance the Broncos will move on. But if their defense does what it has done for much of the season -- only Ben Roethlisberger topped 300 yards passing against the Broncos -- the Broncos will earn the franchise’s eighth Super Bowl trip.