When the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots square off in Sunday’s AFC Championship, the matchup will focus on respective quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady and the 17th meeting in their Hall of Fame careers.
But the outcome, and who represents the AFC in Super Bowl 50, may very well hinge on how healthy each side’s defense is ahead of the game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Each proved victorious in the AFC’s Divisional Round, with New England jumping out early and dropping the Kansas City Chiefs, and Denver claiming a sloppy slugfest against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the resulting injuries to several top contributors on defense and other nagging knocks leave both squads vulnerable.
New England’s defensive frontline, which ranked second in the league with 49 total sacks and just behind NFL-leader Denver, pestered Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith for one sack and five more hits in the victory, but sack leader and defensive end Chandler Jones as well as starting linebackers Jerrod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower, and Jamie Collins are battling injuries.
Jones (right knee) was hurt before the contest, listed with abdomen and toe injuries, and he was also the subject of scrutiny after he reportedly experienced a bad reaction to synthetic marijuana the weekend before facing the Chiefs. Collins (back), who leads New England with 89 tackles and is fourth on the squad with 5.5 sacks, was relatively healthy and didn’t appear on last week’s injury report.
New England head coach Bill Belichick, speaking about both Jones and Collins as well as Hightower and Mayo, said he’s hesitant to make any rash decisions over how hurt each player is before making the trip to Denver and Wednesday’s opening practice.
“Until we actually go out there and do those things, I think there’s a lot of players we won’t really know for sure where they’re at until they go out there and try to practice and do things at the level or close to the level we’ll need to do them on Sunday,” Belichick said according to WEEI.com.
Hightower and Mayo each missed time in the second half versus the Chiefs, but only the former made the injury report. The fourth-year run-stopper and part-time pass rusher was listed with a knee injury, and missed four games altogether this season. Mayo appeared in every game this season, while Collins sat out four games, and Jones one.
The Patriots pass rush, and a less-than Manning, should be the defending champion’s trump card over Denver. Yet the Broncos offensive line, which allowed 39 sacks during the regular season, No. 20 in the league, may not be as overwhelmed as originally anticipated.
The Broncos, however, have glaring injuries in their defensive backfield as they meet the ever-lethal Brady.
Denver safety Omar Bolden, who also serves as a punt returner, reportedly suffered a Grade 2 posterior cruciate ligament sprain in his right knee leaving the Broncos top ranked secondary shorthanded, according to The Denver Post.
"He's probably heading to (injured reserve) here in the next couple days," Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak said Monday. "We'll have to replace him. Don't quite know which direction we'll go yet, so we'll sit down and deal with that here over the next couple days. We'll miss him."
Bolden was dealing with a hamstring injury and missed four games this season, which means Denver has still excelled despite his absence before.
However, a limited cornerback Chris Harris could spell trouble for Denver against New England’s No. 5 passing attack. The 26-year-old defensive back tied for fourth on the team with six passes defensed, and was second with two interceptions returned for 94 yards and a touchdown, but he’s battled a left shoulder injury the last two games and essentially played with just one fully functioning arm against the Chiefs.
"He came out fine. I don't think it got any worse," Kubiak said about Harris to The Post. "It's just been bothering him. He went out there and gutted it up and played with one arm in a lot of ways, battled for our team. Hopefully there is some improvement there this week, just physically. I just saw him in the training room (Monday) morning. His attitude is great, just beat up. It's that time of year. Appreciate him working through it."
The Broncos and Patriots met in Foxborough on Nov. 2014, and New England jumped out to a 27-7 lead en route to a 43-21 win. Manning threw for 438 yards, but was intercepted twice, while Brady passed for four touchdowns and 333 yards.
But Broncos came out on top the last time the two teams met in the playoffs and in Denver. In Jan. 2014, Manning won the duel with Brady in a 26-16 victory that sent Denver to the Super Bowl. Manning threw for 400 yards and two touchdown passes, while Brady threw one touchdown pass and for 277 yards.
Sunday's game may decide the playoff duel between the two quarterback legends, with the all-time postseason series tied, 2-2. After leaving the Colts, Manning has just one overall victory over Brady in four games as a member of the Broncos.
While the quarterbacks are the major storyline, defense is expected to decide who advances to the Super Bowl. Brady will be facing the No. 1 overall defense in the NFL. The Broncos defense allowed the least yards per game (283.1) in the 2015 regular season. The Patriots defense is one of the more under-rated units in the league, finishing ninth in yards allowed (339.4).
The Patriots defense has come up with several big plays. In the second half on Saturday, Jones helped strip Chiefs running back Knile Davis with Kansas City moving into field-goal range. The turnover helped set up a crucial Patriots touchdown drive.