The players around them have changed, the teams have changed, but Peyton Manning and Tom Brady will once again battle for AFC supremacy. When the Broncos host the Patriots in the AFC Championship on Sunday, it will be the 15th time a Brady led team will square off against a Manning led team and the third such meeting in the AFC Championship.
The quarterbacks split the two previous AFC Championship matchups with both going on to win the Super Bowl. While Brady and Manning will garner most of the attention, the game might not come down to a battle of passing attacks. Manning had another historic passing season, but much New England's offensive success has been predicated on the improved rushing attack, particularly in the playoffs. New England ran for 234 yards in its Divisional round win against the Colts, the second straight game with more than 225 rushing yards. New England racked up 89 rushing attempts in its last two games with LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen combining to average 5.6 yards per carry. The Broncos allowed 3.9 YPC during the regular season, the seventh-best in the NFL.
Regardless of what the Patriots do on offense, the New England defense will be tasked with slowing Manning and the Denver passing attack. New England allowed 6.6 yards per pass attempt, good for No. 13 in the league. The Patriots did a supreme job against Manning and Denver during the regular season, limiting Manning to 150 passing yards and 4.2 yards per attempt. Both were by far the lowest single-game totals of Manning's season. A similar defensive performance could lead to another Patriot win against Denver and a trip to the Super Bowl.
If the game on Sunday plays out anything like the Week 12 meeting between the teams, it may go down as one of the more-memorable AFC Championships in history. Denver jumped out to a 24-0 halftime lead, only to see Brady and the Patriots stage a comeback. Brady threw for 263 yards and tossed three touchdowns in the second half. A key miscue on a punt by Wes Welker set New England up for the game-winning field goal in 34-31 overtime victory.
The stakes are much higher for the rematch on Sunday where we'll find out what's in store for the next chapter in the book of Brady vs. Manning.