By Mark Schiff
Of course the AFC comes down to Brady vs. Manning; how could it not? Back on Nov. 29, it appeared that the 17th and perhaps final meeting between the two Hall of Fame quarterbacks had been averted, as backup Brock Osweiler had to fill in for an injured Manning in the Broncos thrilling 30-24 overtime victory, a win that ensured Sunday’s conference championship would be played in the Mile High City. But the Football Gods were not satiated. So next week in the AFC Championship game, we get Brady-Manning XVII, a series of clashes so epic, their recitation requires roman numerals.
Funny thing is, neither quarterback figures to be their team’s most important player on Sunday. Here’s your look at the New England Patriots ahead of Sunday’s AFC Championship game.
Patriots on Offense
As he has been throughout his illustrious career, Tom Brady was brilliant at executing the Patriots offense in 2015; but tight end Rob Gronkowski is the key to the team’s engine, a fact evidenced by the steep decline in Brady’s numbers when Gronkowski is out of the lineup. A “Madden” cheat-code in human form, Gronk’s athletic finesse is as rare as his towering size and Brady is able to get him involved in a variety of ways (check out his two touchdowns in last week’s divisional round win over Kansas City). The impact of the four-time All-Pro tight end is as significant as any individual player in the game.
Denver’s top-ranked pass defense will need to be sharp overall, as a series of injuries have rendered the Patriots run game all but obsolete (New England carried the ball just 14 times for 38 yards against the Chiefs). If Denver’s pass rush can get to Brady like they did towards the end of their win in November, the Patriots one-dimensional scheme could be in trouble. But like Pittsburgh, they remain capable of big plays at any time.
Patriots on Defense
New England’s defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has been calling the plays on defense since 2009 and few coordinators outside of Denver’s own Wade Phillips have a better understanding of how to utilize their players. Defensive end Chandler Jones finished fifth in sacks with 12.5, linebacker Jamie Collins showed impressive versatility and cornerback/and Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler just earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl. New England has playmakers across their defense.
The Broncos will want to play keep-away from New England’s explosive offense, and the Patriots defense has been vulnerable to long drives; even in their loss, Kansas City held the ball a full 15 minutes longer than New England. The key will be to finish drives with more than just field goals, something Denver struggled with throughout the season but was able to do in their first meeting.
Patriots Players to Watch: WR Julian Edelman and LB Dont’a Hightower
Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman missed the first game against the Broncos as part of a half-season lost to a foot injury. But he returned for their playoff win over the Chiefs and had a huge impact, finishing with a team-high 10 catches for 100 yards. He figures to help Brady immensely on third down, as the Patriots went just 2-of-13 in their first meeting with the Broncos.
Linebacker Dont’a Hightower sprained his MCL in the second quarter against Denver and his loss was significant, as the Broncos collected three rushing touchdowns and 136 of their 179 running yards after the middle linebacker left. Hightower’s presence in the middle of the defense should have the coaches thinking of more outside sweeps like the one that won the game for them in overtime.
Forget Peyton vs. Brady, It’s Denver vs. New England
Denver’s mistake-prone offense didn’t exactly whip up a huge amount of momentum in their divisional round win over the Steelers. Yet home field advantage is proof itself that Denver can beat New England. And no matter what Brady says, his 2-6 record in Denver suggests that it’s one of the most difficult stadiums for him to play in. There’s no way Denver can play like they did against the banged-up Steelers and hope to win. But if the defense plays up to its potential and the offense limits mistakes, Denver should be able to come up with enough plays on both sides of the ball to pull out another close victory and advance to their eighth Super Bowl.
We’ll see if Manning can improve to 3-1 against Brady in conference championship games when Denver kicks off against New England at 1:05 p.m. on Sunday, right here on CBS4 Denver.
Mark Schiff is a freelance writer and music journalist for AXS.com. In 2013, his coverage of the Seattle Seahawks ended in heartbreak when they defeated the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Now covering his beloved hometown team, his knowledge and passion for pro football has resulted in multiple fantasy football championships. Find him on Twitter at @mihilites.