DENVER -- The daily headline for this week's AFC Championship game is going to be "Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning." That's just inevitable. But the real story of this game is Tom Brady versus Wade Phillips, the Denver Broncos' defensive coordinator.
Age, four back surgeries and now a plantar fascia injury mean Manning's role will be different in this latest matchup. Not being able to rely on his once great arm, the Broncos want Manning to manage a low-scoring game, help maximize running opportunities and eliminate turnovers. Manning doesn't have to beat Brady. Phillips and his defense are charged with that responsibility.
Manning was injured when the New England Patriots visited the Broncos in the last week of November. Brock Osweiler was making just his second NFL start. Then as it will be now, Phillips had to do whatever he could to limit Brady, and he ultimately did just enough. Brady threw for 280 yards and three touchdowns, but the Broncos pulled out a 30-24 win in overtime.
"I remember in the last game against New England we just finished," Broncos defensive and Malik Jackson said. "We had great defensive pressure on the quarterback. We were rushing real well. The secondary was covering real well. We had a total all-around great game."
But the experience is sure to change this time around. The Patriots will change their offensive persona from week to week, much less year to year. They have been a chameleon week to week, and Phillips can expect to see something different yet again.
Brady? Well, he can expect pressure.
"He lets the dogs go," Jackson said. "Me, Wolfe [Derek Wolfe], DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller, Antonio Smith and Sly [Sylvester Williams] -- he lets us go rush and do our thing and he lets the secondary cover. I think that's why as a defensive lineman I love Wade, because he lets us do our thing and do what we do best, and we do it very well for him. He's going to let us go for him."
Jackson is right. In Phillips' first year as defensive coordinator, the Broncos finished first in total defense (283.1), first in pass defense (199.6), third in rush defense (83.6), fourth in points allowed (18.5) and first in sacks (52). The Broncos' defense was historically good. They just missed becoming the third team since the 1970 merger to rank first in total defense, pass defense and run defense.
They were good last year, but Phillips basically took the same group and turned them into the one of the best performing defenses since the merger.
"He ain't scared," cornerback Aqib Talib said. "Sometimes defensive coordinators get scared and make their players scared because they call scary coverages. But Wade [lays it out] all the time and makes us stand up ,and we do it. The difference between this year and past years is [Wade]."
Phillips managed to contain Brady reasonably well in Round 1. The Patriots tried to win through the air. Brady completed 23 of 42 passes for 262 yards and three touchdowns, and the Pats ran the ball only 16 times for 39 yards. The Broncos got to Brady for three sacks. Brady was able to convert only two third downs in 13 tries.
"We got a lot of different things we can do to a team that throws the ball a lot," defensive tackle Sylvester Williams said. "We can play single coverage [cover one]. The single coverage will allow us to play the run real well but it also allows us to get guys to the passer. We can also go to dime because our two defensive ends can move to tackle and play the run real good. We got a lot of different stuff in base and sub packages."
In his career against Brady as a head coach or defensive coordinator, Phillips is 2-5. Not be a good number in most circles, but against Brady it's not bad. Opponents in the regular season win only 22.8 percent of their games against him. In the playoffs, they win only 26.6 percent.
In the average "Wade versus Brady" game, Brady completes 60.9 percent of his passes for an average of 311.9 yards and 20 touchdowns.
But this time, Phillips is coming at Brady with his fastest defense.
Von Miller says the coach won't change his style this week. "He's calm. He's going to call his plays. He's going to trust his guys and we are going to go out there to make plays for him. He has so much experience. He's been in so many scenarios. He's not afraid to make calls, especially with the type of defense we have."
This might be the last meeting between Manning and Brady, but whether Manning wins or loses depends so much on Wade Phillips and the defense, just as it did during the regular season.
Inside the Huddle
The Seahawks' tendency to start slow -- particularly in early games in the Eastern time zone -- caught up to them in their 31-24 loss to the Panthers. They didn't have enough time to recover from the opening touchdown drive by the Panthers and Luke Keuchly's interception return for a touchdown. There was no way the Panthers were going to blow a 31-0 halftime lead. The mission for the Seahawks next season is getting home-field advantage again.
New Cleveland Browns coach Hue Jackson got a break in being able to grab Ray Horton from the Tennessee Titans as defensive coordinator. Not only is Horton returning to the Browns, he's also a coach who loves analytics, something the Browns are emphasizing next year.
It will be interesting to see if Doug Pederson calls the plays in Philly. There could be as many as seven or eight head coaches calling plays next year. That's good for the quarterbacks, but that's not good for developing future head coaching candidates with offensive backgrounds.
I still believe the Chip Kelly hire in San Francisco might be a good fit. Some believe he wants to bring in Nick Foles to be his starting quarterback. If that's the case, he might get rid of Colin Kaepernick. Though Kaepernick was a spread quarterback, he wasn't very accurate on short passes and he's not the best at making quick decisions in the passing game. If Kaepernick is cut, I could see him go to St. Louis.
All right, we know it's becoming increasingly difficult to determine what is or isn't a catch. But now we are having problems with a simple coin toss? Talk about a rule you didn't believe needed to be written.
Signing defensive end Derek Wolfe to a four-year extension was huge for the Broncos, particularly because it was slightly under $10 million. That signing may allow the Broncos to go to $11 million a year for Malik Jackson. It's going to be an expensive offseason for the Broncos, who also might have to go over $10 million a year for both quarterback Brock Osweiler and linebacker Von Miller.