It's not often that the No. 1 seed gets written off in a conference championship game, but it sure feels as if the Denver Broncos are quickly becoming an afterthought as we approach Sunday's AFC title game against the New England Patriots. The Broncos are three-point underdogs at home, marking just the third time since 2000 that the top seed in a conference has been an underdog in the conference championship game. (Two of those teams, the 2012 Falcons and 2004 Steelers, lost. The 2000 Giants won 41-0.) The gap between the two teams is perhaps widest at quarterback, where the cruel hands of time appear to have passed by Tom Brady to choke Peyton Manning. The back-and-forth battle between the two future Hall of Famers no longer feels like a fair fight. With his receiving corps back on the field, Brady looked as good as new in torching the Chiefs on Saturday. Manning, meanwhile, had to endure his way through an uneven performance against the Steelers, albeit one with six drops from his receivers.
Brady-Manning XVII is expected to be an exercise in squeezing Denver's quarterback, in Bill Belichick swarming the field on the fading Manning and waiting for the 39-year-old to make mistakes. The game could very well turn out that way. New England is rightly the favorite to win this game, almost wholly because nobody trusts Manning. The divisional-round victory was Manning's first start of the year without an interception, and it would be a small miracle if he bumped that streak to two. As much as it would be a fairy-tale story in what is likely to be the last Brady-Manning encounter, it's extremely tough to imagine the Broncos evening the quarterback gap by virtue of a classic performance from Manning.
Let's consider the flip side, then.
The Broncos can't rapidly age Brady or force him to undergo multiple exploratory neck surgeries before the game. It would be hoping against hope to think that Brady will put up a stinker, although random variance and the presence of the league's top pass defense suggests that it's entirely possible. Though that No. 1 pass defense will not be the same without star cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who will be a game-time decision with a debilitating shoulder injury.
So, how can the Broncos eliminate the advantage the Patriots have at quarterback if Manning is not his old self and their best cornerback is on the shelf? The same way teams have gotten the step on Brady in the playoffs over the past few years: pass pressure. This isn't some fatal flaw in Brady's game, but it's just about the only way teams have been able to slow down the New England passing offense in January and February.
Go back through the 2007 playoffs and you get Brady's past 16 games, a full campaign's worth of meaningful postseason action. I took the liberty of splitting these games into two groups: one includes the eight games when Brady (according to ESPN Stats & Information) was pressured most frequently, and the other group includes the eight when Brady was pressured least frequently. This is a little instructive -- it's no surprise that quarterbacks play worse when they're under siege from the defense -- but the difference in terms of performance and outcomes is stark:
That group of games with extra pressure includes Brady's most famous postseason loss. The 17-14 Super Bowl upset victory by the Giants in the 2007 playoffs was driven by pass pressure from the Giants' front four, notably Justin Tuck, who ate guard Logan Mankins' lunch as an interior rusher. The Giants sacked Brady five times and knocked him down on nine occasions across 53 dropbacks, which was enough to bridge the gap between Brady and the lesser Manning, Eli. Big Blue pressured Brady on 33.3 percent of his dropbacks that evening, the most of any single performance in the 16-game sample. (The second-most pressure on Brady in any playoff game from this sample was the Super Bowl rematch, four years later.)
What was notable about the pressure the Giants generated in that game was just how infrequently they blitzed. They rushed four men or fewer on 48 of Brady's 53 dropbacks, meaning they sent a fifth man (or more) for extra pressure just 9.5 percent of the time. An effective four-man rush, of course, is devastating because it gives you a numbers-up advantage in coverage. There's a reason veteran QBs often see an extra blitzer as an opportunity as much as a threat. In this case, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's game plan called on the Giants' defense to live or die by its four-man rushers, hoping that they would win while dropping seven defenders into coverage to try to take away Brady's throwing lanes. It worked.
The only other instance in this playoff run that a team sent blitzers after Brady less than 10 percent of the time? That was a game the Broncos would like to relive this weekend, the 2013 AFC Championship Game. Denver won 26-16 that day, and, although Brady played well, the Broncos did an excellent job of collapsing the interior of his line, especially with nose tackle Terrance Knighton against the aforementioned Mankins, who was playing his last game as a member of the Patriots. The Broncos blitzed on only 9.8 percent of Brady's dropbacks that game; the average team, for reference, blitzed Brady 21.7 percent of the time in those 16 playoff encounters.
The holy grail for any defense is to get pressure without needing to send extra rushers after the quarterback. That should be even more important against Brady, given how much he struggled when teams were able to do that in 2015.
Every quarterback gets worse in this situation, but Brady was way below the norm. The average quarterback posted a 15.2 QBR when pressured by a four-man (or fewer) rush. Brady was all the way down at a QBR of 4.1, which was 28th among the 35 qualifying passers this year. It also happened relatively frequently, as 19 percent of Brady's dropbacks ended with him being pressured without a blitz, which was the ninth-highest percentage in football.
Only one problem. If there's anything Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips likes to do, though, it's send extra pressure after the quarterback. Phillips is a habitual, inveterate blitzer. He sent five or more men after the opposing passer 41.7 percent of the time this season, the fourth-highest rate in football. Only the Cardinals, Jets and Titans blitzed more frequently. Given Denver's excellent secondary and its No. 1 ranking atop the defensive DVOA charts, you can't really fault Phillips, either.
But if there were ever a game to call off the dogs and try to drop back into coverage, this would seem to be the one. Drastic shifts in style have flummoxed the Patriots in the past; think back to the 2010 playoffs, when the Jets traveled to Foxborough just six weeks after being blown out 45-3. Despite the fact that it was the playoffs, Rex Ryan zigged when the Patriots expected him to zag. After consulting with his players, Ryan scrapped his usual Darrelle Revis-led man-to-man coverage and showed Brady mostly zone looks. The Patriots star was sacked five times in a confusing, frustrating game, and the Jets eventually pulled the upset 28-21. It gave Mark Sanchez a playoff road win over Brady, which is something future generations will struggle to understand.
And really, it's not hard to imagine the Broncos getting pressure without having to blitz. This is a team with DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, each of whom can comfortably win one-on-one if given the opportunity. They can rush four and still get home. The Broncos were very successful when they managed to do just that this year; Denver's 8.7 QBR allowed in those situations was ninth in the league. Even more impressive, they manufactured that sort of pressure frequently: 19.2 percent of opposing team dropbacks against the Broncos ended with them being pressured, which was sixth in the league.
That's the way the Broncos level the playing field at quarterback. Move Ware and Miller around and try to confuse Brady into making mistakes without committing extra defenders to the rush. That's what happened last week, when the Chiefs were without Justin Houston (for all but eight snaps) and found themselves blitzing to try to generate a pass rush. They got into trouble early when the Pats converted a third-and-10 and then a third-and-13 on the hashmarks before eventually breaking the floodgates open.
It's all easier said than done. Phillips has to go against his nature. The rushers -- who went missing in Super Bowl XLVIII and in the 2014 divisional-round loss to the Colts -- can't be absent when the Broncos need them most. And even if the Broncos do pull it off, Brady might still be able to loft a pass into double coverage and have Rob Gronkowski come away with the football. But now, it'll be tougher. It's not a foolproof plan, but when the opposition is as good as Brady, there are no such things as foolproof plans.