AFC Championship Game Preview: New England-Denver

The AFC Championship Game that CBS executives were dreaming of arrives on Sunday afternoon in the Rocky Mountains, as the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots will settle a Super Bowl berth (3 PM ET, CBS). Here’s our Notebook Nine points to take into the much-anticipated New England-Denver battle…

    • *Can we just begin with some real gratitude that we get to watch Peyton Manning and Tom Brady go at it in a game of this magnitude at this stage of their careers. It’s like getting to watch Larry Bird and Magic Johnson go after each other one final time. I suppose we don’t know that it’s Peyton and Brady’s last go-around in the playoffs, but the odds are it is, and we know it in advance. Let’s make sure to appreciate the moment.

    • *While most media focus logically focuses on the history between the quarterbacks, mostly compiled when Manning was in Indianapolis (where all three previous playoff meetings happened), these two franchises are not without a little history themselves. New England came to Denver as a defending AFC champ in 1986 and lost. The Patriots made the same trip as two-time defending Super Bowl champ in 2005 and lost. Denver paid a visit east in 2011 and lost a game that proved to be the final start of Tim Tebow’s NFL career.
    • *Las Vegas is strongly in Denver’s corner for this one, as the line has nudged to five points. Combined with an Over/Under of 55, that plays out to a score of 30-25, which sounds close enough. But for a game like this to get not only beyond the key number of three, but another important threshold in four (scores like 31-27 or 27-23 are not uncommon), indicates strong market support for the Broncos.
    • *The fact these teams have elite offenses (Denver is 1st in the NFL in points scored, New England 3rd) and future Hall of Fame quarterbacks obscures that they’ve gotten there in different ways. Manning has had the elite year, with 55 touchdown passes. Brady, thanks mainly to big injury hits to his receiving corps, ranks in the middle of the league in both yards-per-pass and completion percentage. It’s the Patriot running game that has lifted this offense, something that will come as no surprise to any fan who watched the beatdown they put on Indianapolis last Saturday night.

  • *The superiority New England has shown all year on the defensive side is being overlooked. The Patriots rank 10th in points allowed, while the Broncos are 22nd. While Denver played in a tougher AFC West, that produced both wild-card teams, New England got a tougher NFC draw, playing the tams of the NFC South, while Denver was able to clean up on the NFC East.
  • *New England’s defense is keyed by getting pressure on the quarterback, where a four-man front led by ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are fifth in the league in sacks. This goes head-on with Denver’s offensive line, an area I thought would be a weakness, but has proven to be a great strength—the Bronco front five has been the best in the NFL keeping their quarterback outright. If we know who wins this battle, we probably know who wins the game.
  • *Are the Patriots going to have problems in the red zone? Normally running teams can cash in their chances, especially when they have a ruthlessly efficient legend at quarterback. But the absence of tight end Rob Gronkowski is big at any spot in the field and particularly so when it’s down close. Let’s say the Pats get in the red zone four times, but settle for field goals twice. In a game like this, that can be the difference.
  • *Where does New England head coach deploy his difference-making corner Aqib Talib? Last week it was easy—Talib neutralized Indy wideout T.Y. Hilton and the Colts had no other consistent threats. That’s not going to be the case on Sunday, where Peyton distributes the ball among Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker at wideout, and Julius Thomas at tight end.
  • *That brings us to another strength-on-strength battle, and it’s the ability of the Patriot secondary to force incompletions (they’re 4th in the NFL at completion percentage allowed) and Peyton’s terrific efficiency. New England won this battle in their regular season meeting, forcing Manning into a 19/36 night, and they won the game. Can Belichick’s defense pull it off one more time?

I’m really torn on this game, so when it comes to picking with the points, I’d have to grab New England (+5). I’m also leaning Patriots, ever so slightly, for the outright win. I’m just concerned about Denver’s ability to make big plays when they need to—or to avoid bad plays. They nearly let San Diego back in the game, and of course no one has forgotten the Baltimore game last year. Please note that the concern lies more on defense then with Manning.

There’s also the issue of coaching. John Fox is a solid football coach, whom almost any NFL team should be happy to have in charge. One of those teams would not be the New England Patriots, who have one of the all-time greats on the sidelines. Unless Manning opens up and blows the Pats out of the water, this game might end up being decided by who makes a better in-game adjustment on some key area. I’m taking Belichick.