DENVER -- Sunday will be the 17th time that Peyton Manning and Tom Brady will face each other, and the AFC Championship Game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High could well be the last time given the 39-year-old Manning’s uncertain playing future.
The two future Hall of Famers are behind center for playoff-tested teams with a trip to Super Bowl 50 in the balance. Both the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots are attempting to reach their second Super Bowl in the past three seasons.
That means that if the Patriots reach the title game, they will have the most Super Bowl appearances, with nine.
Some things to watch for Sunday:
Manning’s patience. Many in the NFL believe Manning presses at times against the Patriots and throws passes he shouldn’t. Patriots coach Bill Belichick's biggest strength as a strategist is he takes the things you like to do most and takes them away, and his players have the assignment discipline to make it work. Belichick has often dropped linebackers into Manning’s favorite passing lanes, especially early in games, to try to snag an early turnover. Manning has thrown six interceptions in his postseason meetings against the Patriots -- four of those were in his first playoff game against New England, to close out the 2003 season. In his recent return from seven missed starts with a left foot injury, Manning has shown patience to go with an improved throwing motion as his foot has improved. But the playoffs are always another matter, with bigger risk-reward stakes. If Manning can stay turnover-free in this one, the Broncos’ chances improve.
What happens after a mistake? Often, in the post-Mike Shanahan era, the Broncos’ games with the Patriots have been punctuated by one Denver mistake turning into a rather ugly string of mistakes that often resulted in a shrink-from-the-moment loss. One thing the Broncos have shown this season is plenty of resiliency -- they are 10-3 in games decided by seven or fewer points. The team has bounced back game after game. Each team will make a mistake or two in this one. The team that digs itself out of the hole with the least amount of damage, that doesn’t let one miscue turn into another, will have a far better chance to move on to the Super Bowl.
Pressuring Brady. The Broncos likely won’t get to Brady nearly as often as their No. 1 defense has gotten to other quarterbacks. But the group has to at least affect Brady’s timing in the offense. If Brady can simply throw and deliver, in that 1.8- to 2.1-second snap-to-throw range, the Broncos will have a difficult time getting the Patriots off the field. It’s a rhythm offense with plenty of option routes for the receivers. The Broncos have to get the Patriots' receivers out of their routes as much as possible and force Brady to go to second and third options. It has to be consistent, because a sack or two won’t matter much in the big picture if the Broncos don’t consistently stress the Patriots’ offense for the rest of the day.
Stars need to shine. Games like Sunday’s are why some guys get far bigger contracts than other guys. Playoff games, with Super Bowl trips on the line, are the brightest of stages. And in their past four playoff losses, there has been a decided lack of star power seen in key moments. Certainly the Broncos need as many players as possible to play at, or near their best. But when all is said and done Sunday, if Demaryius Thomas, Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and Emmanuel Sanders haven’t each left their mark on the game, the Broncos will lose.