For the fourth time in the last 12 years, the AFC Championship will be decided by Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. But when the New England Patriots visit the Denver Broncos on Sunday, the game will have a different feel than the previous matchups between the best quarterbacks of their generation.
In past seasons, there was plenty of debate regarding which quarterback was better. With the 2016 Super Bowl approaching, that question has been answered, with Brady on top of his game and Manning in the twilight of his career. Because the gap between the two signal callers is so great, the Patriots are three-point road favorites in Denver.
For much of his career, Manning carried poor defensive teams deep into the playoffs. Now that Manning is playing the worst football of his career, it’s his defense that is the main reason why he has a chance to get back to the Super Bowl. The Broncos held off the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional playoffs, 23-16, as Manning completed 21 of 37 passes for just 222 yards and no touchdowns.
Sunday’s performance wasn’t an aberration for Manning, and it might be the best that Denver could hope for. Playing in 10 regular-season games, Manning threw 17 interceptions and just nine touchdown passes. Whether it’s been Manning or Brock Osweiler under center, Denver’s top-ranked defense has helped them win several close games and earn the No.1 seed in the AFC.
Ten of the Broncos’ 13 total wins have come by seven points or less, and the team scored more than 27 points in regulation just once. The Patriots, on the other hand, have scored at least 27 points in 13 games, winning by at least 17 points on six occasions. Led by Brady, who looks like he might be playing at an elite level into his 40’s, New England’s offense gives them a chance to win big over just about any team in the league.
With a 27-20 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional playoffs, New England had a much easier time winning than the score might indicate. Brady threw for 302 yards and two scores, leading an offense that finally has a healthy receiving corps. Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski combined to catch 17 passes for 183 yards and two touchdowns, and they could have a big day in the AFC title game, even against Denver’s stingy defense.
Denver was able to win at home against New England in Week 12. Brock Osweiler helped the Broncos pull out a 30-24 overtime win, coming back from 14 points down in the fourth quarter. But Gronkowski left the game with an injury and Edelman didn’t play at all, as the Patriots blew what seemed to be a sure victory.
Brady still managed to play well against Denver, throwing for 280 yards and three touchdowns, though it’s possible that he could struggle on Sunday. The Broncos held Aaron Rodgers to 77 passing yards, and they limited Philip Rivers to less than 230 passing yards in both games against the San Diego Chargers.
Manning’s wide receivers certainly didn't provide much help against Pittsburgh, but it seems clear that if Denver needs him to make several big plays, the Broncos won’t have enough to keep pace with the Patriots.
Prediction: New England over Denver, 27-16