Hoping to silence critics and even up the all-time playoff record against Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos host the New England Patriots in Sunday afternoon’s AFC Championship game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
The pair of future Hall of Famers last squared off in the playoffs in the 2007 AFC title game, with Manning leading the Indianapolis Colts to a 38-34 victory and later the Super Bowl. Still Brady holds a 2-1 all-time record against his rival, and looks to bring the Patriots back to the Super Bowl for the sixth time in his career.
It’s the third straight appearance for New England in the conference title game, but last year they were shutout in the second half and Brady tossed two interceptions against the Baltimore Ravens. The Patriots are 7-2 all-time in the AFC championship game.
Denver’s last appearance in the AFC title game was in 2005, when they fell to the eventual champion Pittsburgh Steelers. Before then, current team president John Elway led the Broncos to a second straight Super Bowl title in 1998.
Sunday marks not only the renewal of one of the league’s most storied rivalries, but pits two incredible offenses against each other. Denver was first in the NFL with 37.9 points and 457.3 total yards per game, while New England was tied for second with 27.8 ppg.
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New England bested Denver 34-31 in Week 12 of the regular season, with kicker Stephen Gostkowski chipping in a 31-yarder with less than two minutes remaining in overtime. Brady threw three touchdowns to Manning’s two with an interception, and Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno pounded the Patriots defense for 224 rushing yards and one touchdown.
Completing a record 55 touchdowns in the regular season, Manning can guide the Broncos back to the Super Bowl in just his second year with the team. Manning and a solid and unexpected defensive effort were the main reasons Denver defeated the San Diego Chargers 24-17 in the Divisional Round last week.
Manning went 25-for-36 for 230 yards and two scores to Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker, while the defense forced four sacks and another five quarterback hits, holding the Chargers' potent offense to a 4-for-12 third down success rate.
Welker should be especially eager to eliminate the team he spent six seasons with and jilted him on a contract extension last summer, but he told reporters on Thursday that he has no ill will towards New England and was glad the storyline mostly died when the two teams clashed in the regular season.
Unfortunately for Denver they’ll have to face the always dangerous Brady without defensive back Chris Harris, who tore his ACL in the second half against San Diego. Though Denver finished 27th in the league against the pass, Harris was still one of the better defenders in the game and provided leadership with veteran Champ Bailey on the sidelines for much of the year.
The Patriots are currently red-hot, winning six of their last seven including last week’s 44-23 beat down of Indianapolis with running back LeGarrette Blount gaining 166 yards and four touchdowns and Steven Ridley chipping in another 52 yards and two scores.
Brady finished 13-for-25 for 198 yards, and it was fourth time out of 25 career playoff games he finished without a touchdown pass, all wins for the Patriots.
New England’s defense notched four interceptions, including two from cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, and generated three sacks. But they’ll face a Denver offensive line that let up 20 sacks all year, the best mark in the NFL.
In terms of injuries the Broncos get a clean bill of health, though Thomas (calf) didn’t participate in practice until Friday, and even then he was limited.
New England has already ruled out second-string linebacker Steve Beauharnais (illness), while punter Ryan Allen (shoulder) and receivers Aaron Dobson (foot) and Kenbrell Thompkins (hip/concussion) are questionable.
Betting Odds: Denver -5
Over/Under: 57 points
Time: Sunday, 3 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Live Stream Info: CBS Sports here
Prediction: Denver 33, New England 27