Breaking down the Broncos and Patriots
The AFC Championship Game on Sunday will not be Brady-Manning 17 (or XVII).
The previews of the game will all focus on the two. During the game, the cameras will be on them nonstop.
It’s a way to attract the casual fan, even though it’s the AFC Championship, and that is reason enough to watch the darn game. (Seriously, this is one of my favorite days of the year, both conference championship games.)
On a local note, this is all about Brady vs. Wade Phillips and the Broncos’ defense and Manning vs. Bill Belichick and the Patriots’ D.
Breaking it down.
Why the Broncos win
• Home-field advantage: Probably the biggest thing going for Denver, and it’s not without merit. Dating back to the AFL days, the Broncos own the Patriots at 5,180 feet, 20-9. Six of New England’s nine wins in The Centennial State came before the AFL-NFL merger.
The Patriots have won here three times since 1970 with Tim Tebow (2011), Danny Kanell (2003) and Brian Griese (2000) quarterbacking the Broncos. (Peyton Manning, at whatever capacity he is right now, and we’ll get to it, is still better than all three combined.)
Denver’s 3-0 against the Pats in the playoffs (1987, 2006 and 2014) in thin air. By contrast, New England has won the last five against the Broncos in Foxboro, and most of them haven’t been close.
To Broncos fans’ credit, Sports Authority Field at Mile High is loud and uncomfortable. Altitude is an undeniable factor, particularly for a team that likes to play up-tempo. And bad things happen to the Patriots here. (That last one is an intangible, but there’s too much history to contest it.)
• The Broncos have the defense. The way to beat The Brady, er, the Patriots is to knock him on his rear end. Pressure him, upset his timing or force him to move out of the pocket. Denver can do all of these things.
You saw what happened last week with turnovers. Pittsburgh fumbled in the fourth quarter, the only turnover of the game, halting an impressive drive. The Broncos took the ball the other way for the game-clinching score.
Manning’s admitted himself, and rightly so, that the Denver D is carrying the team. (By the way, bravo to defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Terrible head coach, but a brilliant coordinator — he’s been terrific in his latest stint in Denver.) This defense can make the plays that change a game.
• Is this Peyton’s year? I’m a big believer in sports karma. Sports are weird, and the teams you expect to win don’t always win. Remember the 1996 Broncos, who lost to Jacksonville in the Divisional Round? That still burns Broncos fans. John Elway said that that was the lowest point of his career, which to that point included three Super Bowl losses.
Manning carried the Indianapolis Colts forever, only winning the whole thing once. He’s been great for about two-and-a-half years of his four seasons here. Wouldn’t it be ironic were he to win when he isn’t in the prime of his powers?
Why the Patriots win
• The Broncos can’t outscore New England, by which I mean Denver’s offense really shouldn’t scare anyone. The Broncos’ first two possessions last week started deep in Pittsburgh territory because of a good punt return and a bad punt. Denver got two field goals, instead of touchdowns.
Field goals won’t do it against New England. The Pats average 28.9 points per game.
And this brings us to the $64,000 question again. What can Manning do?
Against San Diego in Week 17 and against Pittsburgh on Sunday, it wasn’t like he was lighting it up. Even with his receivers playing hot potato with the ball, Manning has not demonstrated an ability to go deep.
Denver’s longest passing play was 34 yards, a gain achieved by Manning falling down to avoid the Steelers’ rush and not getting touched. The Steelers thought the play was over and stopped playing. That does not inspire.
• Evil Lord Hoodie … If the Broncos are playing any other team, they’d be favored. Yet Belichick always seems to cook something up for Manning. There’s no one who knows Manning better.
Brady has an 11-5 record against Manning, which is deceiving and not deceiving. It’s not a fair reflection on Manning as there were times his Colts were outmatched. At the same time, the constant for Manning, with the Colts and the Broncos, has been Darth Belichick.
• The Pats are healthy. Brady looks fresher after a bye week. Rob Gronkowski rampaged against the Chiefs. Julian Edelman is back in the lineup. (And Broncos corner back Chris Harris is not at full health for that matchup.) And, oh yeah, when the Broncos beat New England, 30-24, earlier this season, the Patriots didn’t have Danny Amendola.
The Patriots do what they do this time of year and advance with a 31-20 win.
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