AFC Championship Preview: One Last Time for Old Times Sake

Slowing down Gronk is priority one for the Broncos D. (credit: fansided.com)

Jim Bearor

Brady-Manning XVII is happening again, and there are only so many ways we can rehash the same rhetoric about these two legendary quarterbacks.  I’m not one to put together a Bleacher Report-esque slideshow recounting the most memorable moments from the rivalry, but sure, I’ll click through something like that for old time’s sake.  I don’t need someone on my Facebook feed sharing a link to a playoff stat comparison between Tom and Peyton, because I’ve seen it before.  Yes, it obviously makes a difference that Brady has Belichick and Manning doesn’t. No, cheating isn’t the reason the Patriots win Super Bowls.  We’re coming up on the seventeenth iteration of this saga, and at this point, I don’t see the outcome changing either quarterback’s legacy all that much.

This doesn’t mean a Patriots romp en route to a fifth Super Bowl victory wouldn’t put an exclamation point on things.  Peyton winning the final contest and riding off into the sunset a champion would be an interesting finish to the discussion as well.  But however this game may turn out, it’s still only one game and it isn’t going to be truly representative of what made Brady-Manning great in the first place, mainly because Peyton Manning has grown old.

He’s not the same guy as the laser-rocket armed iron man who won 4 MVPs and a Super Bowl.  The guy who took over for Brock Osweiler is a surgically repaired 39 year old statue who can’t attack defenses downfield.  This version of Peyton Manning completed 2 of 8 deep passes against Pittsburgh (who is terrible against the deep ball) – and if you take away that awkward, flukey play where he collapsed and got back up, he was 1 of 7 for 19 yards with the long ball. There’s no avoiding the fact that he has significant limitations at this stage of his career, but even so, his team has a good chance to win on Sunday.

The end of an era. (Getty Images)

The end of an era. (Getty Images)

This is where we can find a refreshing angle for this tired conversation: Peyton doesn’t have to outduel Brady here, he just has to be effective.  If the Patriots are going to win, Brady will have to carry them there.  This is more Patriots-Broncos than Brady-Manning, and I’m into it.  So what if they aren’t playing on even terms? If I remember correctly, a couple of the matchups in the early-to-mid 2000’s featured a stacked New England team with a talented but inexperienced Tom Brady against Peyton Manning who was entering his prime on an otherwise average Colts squad.  You could tell me that the script has flipped, and now Manning is the game manager on a supremely talented team and I’d shrug my shoulders and be like “yeah I guess that makes sense” because it kind of does, and otherwise, a long and ultimately unsatisfying conversation would probably ensue.  But hey, there’s your cool little poetic lens you can watch the game through if you so choose.

If storybook endings and legacies aren’t your thing, you can always just watch this game objectively as just another AFC Championship between the top two seeds, and it’s still an intriguing matchup.  The Denver Broncos have the best passing defense in the NFL, as well as the 4th best run defense according to FBO. They did not play up to snuff in the first half of last week’s game against the Steelers, but they returned to form by the end of the game, and I fully expect them to show up on Sunday.

Wade Phillips will likely stick to the same Cover 2 Man scheme that has worked so well this year, but I’m interested to see how he chooses to account for the combination of Edelman and Gronkowski – something he didn’t have to worry about when the Broncos saw the Pats in the regular season.  Chris Harris Jr. has also made it clear that he’s playing hurt, and won’t be at the top of his game for the remainder of the playoffs.  This defense will still be great, especially if they can continue to create pressure with only three or four players, but there will be windows for Brady.

Even if New England’s running backs are a non-factor (as expected) and Phillips can afford to drop six or seven guys into coverage, you have to believe Belichick and McDaniels will find a way for Brady to manufacture some offense.  This will probably come in the way of Gronkowski and Edelman running interwoven routes that work like a pick, but are technically legal.  Per usual, Brady will contently settle for the short throws until a seam opens up downfield or Gronk does Gronk stuff.  For both of these units, the approach is fairly straightforward.

On the other side of things, we’re looking at a New England defense that has recently gotten some key starters back, and a lot hinges on their health.  It isn’t hard to see that stopping Denver’s run game should be the number one focus for the Pats, which makes Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower that much more important .  If the Broncos are going to have any chance to win this game, they’ll need to be able to rely on the run.  They were able to run in week 12 against this unit, but that was without Collins, and Hightower was taken out of the game in the second quarter.  It was easy to see the impact Hightower’s absence had in the second half:

“Hightower’s absence in the second half in Week 12 was stark:

With Hightower: 16 Denver carries; 46 rushing yards; 0 TDs; 2.9 yards/carry
Without Hightower: 16 Denver carries; 133 rushing yards; 3 TDs; 8.3 yards/carry”  – Kevin Patra

 

Getting the run game going will be tougher this time around, and since Manning is the quarterback now, the safeties can and will creep up – daring him to try and go over the top.  According to all the numbers, the Broncos have the best defense this year, but analyzing this game as a standalone, it looks like they will be the team who will struggle to score against New England.  For Peyton Manning to come out on top, it starts with the run (which is mostly out of his hands), then it’ll come down to whether or not he can exploit openings he finds downfield – something he struggled to do a week ago.

peytonPeyton will be tested, but honestly he can get away with 220-ish yards, one touchdown, one interception, and be just fine.  Brady will have to ball out, unless Belichick can conjure some kind of running game (which I seriously doubt, but I wouldn’t rule out his dark wizardry). I think it’ll all come down to Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Andersen being able to consistently churn out those tough first downs on offense, and Denver’s front four will have to pressure Brady so they can drop as many men into coverage as possible.

 

Peyton over Brady one last time, 24-20.

JimBearor– Jim Bearor (@JimBearor)

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