AFC Playoffs Q&A: A super matchup
Tom Brady and Peyton Manning meet (again) with a Super Bowl berth on the line
His team had just earned a 24-17 AFC divisional playoff win over San Diego, but the quarterback wasn't ready to talk about meeting Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in next Sunday's AFC Championship Game. This win, as Manning noted, had been too meaningful, an indication of how hard the Broncos had fought to be this close to the Super Bowl. So when a reporter asked Manning what was weighing on his mind, Manning couldn't resist the opportunity. "What's weighing on my mind," Manning said, "is how soon I can get a Bud Light in my mouth."
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It was a well-timed line, one that drew plenty of laughter. It also was a sign of how relieved Manning had to be in the wake of this victory. It seemed as if the Broncos were capable of melting down for the second straight year in the playoffs as the final 15 minutes of this game played out with a Chargers rally. Instead, the Broncos made the plays they had to make to secure the win. In the process, they let the entire football-watching world know that this team has grown up plenty over the past year.
What Manning understood is that there will be ample time to talk about the Patriots. That game will be hyped all week because that's what happens whenever and wherever Manning and Brady collide. Next Sunday's game will be Round 15, with three of those meetings coming in the playoffs. Brady has won two of those contests, but each quarterback has claimed a victory in the AFC title game (Brady in 2003, Manning in 2006). Brady actually owns a significant advantage in overall head-to-head meetings, as his record is 10-4 when Peyton is on the other sideline.
But none of that really matters today. Along with being a matchup of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, this also is a meeting of teams that have battled through plenty of adversity all year.
"Tom Brady has been an outstanding quarterback for such a long time but next week's game is the Broncos versus the Patriots," Manning said. "I know there will be some individual matchups that will get headlines but it will be a battle between two good teams."
It also will be a matchup that will generate plenty of questions over the coming week. Here are the 10 most important:
1. Which team has the emotional advantage? As much as New England has faced adversity throughout this entire season -- from former tight end Aaron Hernandez being charged with murder to numerous injuries to Pro Bowl players -- the Broncos have endured more.
They've lost their own fair share of star players for the season (including outside linebacker Von Miller and left tackle Ryan Clady) while also watching Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey hobble through the worst year of his career with a lingering foot injury. Their head coach, John Fox, was sidelined for a month after he underwent heart surgery. Even though they'd never admit, they've also had to remember how painful last season was, when they were upset at home in a divisional playoff loss to Baltimore.
The Patriots certainly have proved themselves to be a resilient bunch. But the Broncos have shown repeatedly that they will not lose their focus, regardless of the circumstances. This is a team that seems to have grown closer and tougher over the past 12 months and that will be something that works in Denver's favor next Sunday.
2. Should the Patriots stick with a run-heavy offense? The scariest thing about the Patriots' success in their 43-22 win over the Colts -- when they had 46 rushing attempts and 234 yards and only 27 passes -- wasn't just the numbers they generated. It was their willingness to change things up at a time of the year that normally belongs to Brady.
For most of the past few seasons, head coach Bill Belichick has asked Brady to carry his offense with a prolific air attack. Against Indianapolis, Belichick reverted to a strategy that hadn't been seen in New England since Corey Dillon was toting the rock. LeGarrette Blount was the star (with 166 rushing yards and four touchdowns) but there was also genius in the play calling of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. It certainly helped that the Patriots were facing an opponent that ranked 26th in the NFL in rush defense, but McDaniels also remained committed to the run when it wasn't yielding huge gains in the first half. That balance -- as well as the Patriots' holding the ball for 35 minutes -- was effective in a game that turned into a blowout. It will be even more vital this coming Sunday.
3. How crucial will Denver's running game be on Sunday? The Broncos have set all sorts of records -- with Manning setting NFL marks for passing yards and passing touchdowns in a single season -- but more balance is what will take them to the Super Bowl.
Rookie Montee Ball has become a more effective option in the second half of the season and Knowshon Moreno is coming off the best season of his career (with 1,586 total yards and 13 touchdowns). Moreno also enjoyed his best game as a professional in the last meeting against New England. He gained 224 yards and, more notably, carried the ball 37 times. That game was the first indication all season that Denver was willing to add some smashmouth elements to this prolific offense. The Broncos will need to do it again in this contest, as New England will be looking to dominate the time of possession for a second straight game.
4. Who the hell is Jamie Collins? Blount may have been the star of New England 's win over Indianapolis, but Collins clearly deserved his own recognition. The rookie linebacker produced a sack, an interception and solid coverage on Colts tight end Coby Fleener for most of the contest. All this after he was asked to replace Brandon Spikes, who surprisingly was put on injured reserve in a move that reportedly had more to do with Belichick losing patience with his former starter than any real health problems.
Regardless of how he got the job, Collins provided plenty of evidence to explain why New England used a second-round pick on him in last year's draft. He's blossomed in the second half of this season and his versatility -- he played defensive back, linebacker and defensive end at Southern Mississippi -- makes him an ideal defender in Belichick's system. His emergence also takes ample pressure off a unit that lost its two best players (nose tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo) to season-ending injuries. Collins is exactly the kind of three-down player New England needs against the Broncos, particularly if he can handle Pro Bowl tight end Julius Thomas.
5. What happens to Denver's secondary if Chris Harris isn't healthy? The Broncos probably don't want to think about that possibility right now. Harris has been the team's best cornerback all season and his absence was huge late in Denver's win over San Diego. The Broncos were up 17-0 when Harris left the contest with an unspecified injury to his ankle and knee late in the third quarter.
After that point, San Diego scored 17 points in the fourth quarter, with Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen inflicting the most damage. Rivers threw for 173 of his 217 yards in that period. Allen had five receptions for 123 yards and two touchdowns after posting one catch through the first three quarters. You can bet the Patriots will pay close attention to those numbers. The Broncos' secondary already had been plagued by Bailey's lingering foot problems and a penchant for giving up big plays. If Harris can't play -- or is limited -- the Broncos will struggle to keep Brady from carving them up as he did in the second half of that first meeting.
6. How will the Patriots' championship game experience matter in this contest? It has some value. New England may be traveling to Denver, but the Patriots are also appearing in their third consecutive AFC Championship Game. Denver hasn't been this deep into the playoffs since the 2005 season and Bailey is the only current Broncos player who was a part of that bunch.
Granted, it helps to have Manning, Wes Welker and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, all of whom had Super Bowl experience before they arrived in Denver. But the bulk of the Broncos' roster has no idea what the pressure feels like once you reach this level. There's a reason why many veterans believe it's harder to get to the Super Bowl than it is to win it. Even with home-field advantage, it wouldn't be surprising to see Denver start this game tight. The Broncos have been picked to be in this position all season. The pressure, from this vantage point, is all on them.
7. Can Denver's pass rush continue to dominate? The most surprising revelation in Sunday's game was that Denver effectively pressured Rivers despite not having Miller on the field. The Broncos had two sacks on San Diego's first possession of the game and ended the contest with four total.
The significance of those numbers can't be underscored enough for two reasons. The first is that Miller is one of the best pass-rushers in football and his big plays were huge in the first meeting between these teams. The second is that such pressure is going to be critical to protecting that banged-up secondary. The Broncos don't have to put Brady on the ground consistently. However, they will need to make him feel their presence every time he drops back to pass.
8. What's the most important matchup in this game? New England's defensive backs versus the Broncos' receivers. Denver's offense has been dominant all season, but this is the first time since early November that all four of Manning's top targets -- Julius Thomas and wide receivers Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker -- have been on the field together. Welker's presence was especially significant Sunday, as he missed Denver's last three regular-season games while nursing a concussion.
It's no secret what this group can do, but the Patriots' secondary offers some interesting matchups. Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib has the size and speed to handle the 6-foot-3, 229-pound Thomas (who caught just four passes in that first game), but the real key for New England is the play of second-year cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. Though he's been hampered by injuries and off-the-field issues over the past year, he's also talented enough to shadow Decker or Welker.
Dennard had two interceptions in New England's win over Indianapolis, the first of which set up the Patriots' first touchdown. With him back at full strength -- and the improved health of other banged-up defensive backs like Devin McCourty, Steve Gregory and Kyle Arrington -- New England has some options to counter Denver's aerial attack. The edge goes to the Broncos on talent alone, but the Patriots know they can win some battles against this unit.
9. How much can we learn from the first meeting between these teams? Not much. New England may have dealt the Broncos their most baffling defeat of this season -- a 34-31 overtime loss -- but that game was so bizarre that it's impossible to draw many parallels to this AFC title game.
First off, Miller -- who scored on a 60-yard fumble return and forced another fumble that led to a second touchdown -- is lost for the season with a torn ACL. He played a huge role in the Broncos jumping out to a 24-0 halftime lead in that contest. The chance of Denver imploding in the second half for a second straight time also isn't likely. The Broncos committed three of their four turnovers in the final three periods, including one that involved defensive back Tony Carter inadvertently touching a New England punt in overtime that Patriots defensive back Nate Ebner recovered to set up the game-winning field goal.
Denver may have led the NFL in lost fumbles (16), but that was one of those games where the ball was bouncing all over the place. After what happened in that contest, ball security is the last thing that will be an issue here.
10. Who will be in the Super Bowl? Denver has been the popular pick all season, so let's stick with that today. Even if the Broncos won't admit it, they exorcised a major demon with Sunday's win. Last year's divisional playoff loss to Baltimore was the kind of defeat that can haunt a franchise for years and now it's officially gone.
The way the Broncos played San Diego -- dominating the Chargers through the first three quarters and then securing the victory with some clutch passing late -- proved that Denver can do whatever is necessary to win at this stage of the season. The Broncos are both focused and motivated and their hunger will be the difference in the latest chapter of Manning-Brady. This one is going to belong to Peyton.
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