AFC Championship

This weekend’s early match is an oldie but a goodie in the minds of many fans. For the 15th time in their careers Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will meet, and for the fourth time it’ll be for a chance to go to the Super Bowl. The previous three matches saw the Patriots confuse Manning defensively, which caused him to throw five interceptions in the two losses.  The win came on the back of a huge come-from-behind effort in the old RCA Dome that produced Manning’s sole Super Bowl ring. The losses to the Patriots were both in Gillette Stadium.

Turning the page to this Sunday finds Manning in a new uniform but Brady in the same old threads.  The Manning-led Denver Broncos were a sight to see during the regular season when Manning threw for a record number of yards, touchdowns, and first downs while leading for his team to break the record for highest amount of points scored in league history. Manning opened the season with 7 touchdowns against the defending champion Ravens and never looked back.

Tom Brady on the other hand had a year that many see as subpar given his illustrious career.  Brady set the benchmark for touchdown throws in 2007 when he threw 50 with Randy Moss on his team. That record was broken this year by his counterpart on Sunday. The “Brady Bunch” hasn’t been the same as key losses to the offense have recently led him to turn back the clock to be more of a game manager, with his running backs becoming a lot more important to the team’s success. On Sunday the Patriots will be without their three best players from last year in TE Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and WR Wes Welker (who caught ten touchdowns from Manning this year).  However even with the loss of players on both offense and defense the Patriots still managed to exceed the number of wins that Vegas had set for them pre-season to finish at 12-4, which included a come-from-behind win against Manning this year.

This weekend’s game should be no different than the two have previously played. Manning’s offense is star studded in all areas with the top WR corps in football.  Manning also has TE Julius Thomas who wasn’t on the field in the head-to-head match-up this year, and who came up with the game-clinching catch in last week’s 24-17 win over the Chargers. The top pass catchers for Manning this year are Demarius Thomas, Erick Decker, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas.  In the backfield, the combination of Knowshon Moreno and Monte Ball have been terrific complements to Manning’s aerial assault.

The keys for Denver to advance to the Super Bowl will be not to make mistakes and to score early. The Broncos always played best when they had a lead early in a game that allowed them to dictate pace defensively. The Broncos will try and jump on the Patriots early like they did in their regular-season matchup. Denver will more than likely keep Manning in shotgun for most of the first half until the game changes. For the most part the key for Denver is to keep the chains moving and scoring points any way they can.

Tom Brady has his new running-heavy scheme that has been implemented, which has kept him from throwing over 200 yards since Week 15 against the Dolphins.  During this period Brady’s QB rating has been about 78, which is well below his career average of 95. The Patriots have put together a pretty decent amount of receivers for Brady but it’s nothing like some of the teams in the past that included Randy Moss and Wes Welker. The Patriots’ run game is what set them apart late in the season with LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley, while Shane Vereen has really helped out in the pass game for Brady. The Patriots are going to want to run the ball effectively and sustain long drives while keeping Manning on the sideline by winning the time of possession in each quarter. The Patriots cannot come away with field goals in the red zone or they could get blown out in this game. Also, it’s paramount that the Patriots stay mistake-free in this game on the road. Mistakes will be either team’s Achilles heel, but more so if the road team is the one that shoots itself in the foot.

This should be a great game to watch, but in the end it’s tough to pick against New England. They have a much stronger defense then Denver and Peyton Manning barely escaped last week while having everything go right for him against the Chargers. The Patriots had the largest win differential of any of the Divisional matchups and ran the ball not only when they wanted to but also when they had to. Manning’s offensive attack is based on timing and his ability to get the ball out of his hands cleanly. That won’t be the case as the Belichick defense will be in Manning’s face all day. The Patriots picked off Andrew Luck four times last weekend and should have a few more this weekend. In the clutch Tom Brady will be able to do enough to lead the Patriots to their sixth Super Bowl and in so doing defeat Manning for the third time on Championship Weekend.