Preview

Broncos vs Patriots

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.

Mark Sandritter

The Broncos will win because

They're hungrier. The Pats have been here before -- this is their third straight AFC Championship berth -- while the Broncos haven't been this deep in the playoffs since 2005. They're hungry because their quarterback, Peyton Manning, is playing in one of his last seasons, and his legacy as a playoff quarterback is on the line. They're hungry because they are looking to validate a regular season that saw them break every NFL record, and the only way to cement this season as one of the best ever is to win the Super Bowl. That hunger doesn't guarantee a thing against a great team like the Patriots, but it does make them hyper-focused on their week of practice and the task at hand. They have the talent to compete with anyone; they just need to execute, and with that hunger driving them, I think they will.

The Patriots will win because

The defense is actually good again. Sealver Siliga is a first-year defensive tackle who has gone from practice squad fodder to the team’s best run-stuffing defensive tackle in a little over a month. Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard finally look healthy and appear to be a great 1-2 punch on the outside. Logan Ryan has taken over in the slot for Kyle Arrington, and is a promising rookie who has perhaps the best ball skills of any Patriots defensive back. Jamie Collins has emerged at linebacker, and can disrupt the game in run defense, as a pass rusher or in the secondary. And Dont’a Hightower, who has taken over for the injured Brandon Spikes, is playing the best football of his life. Simply put, the pieces have fallen back into place over the last few weeks for the Patriots. The defense is close to as good as it was at the start of the season. Bill Belichick knows how to game plan for Peyton Manning better than any other coach in the league. Add all that up, and you’ve got a recipe for another Patriots victory.

Number of interest

58

That’s the current expected temperature for kickoff on Sunday. If you don’t remember, conditions were terrible when these two teams met on Nov. 24. The temperatures were around 5-10 degrees with winds so strong, that Patriots coach Bill Belichick chose to defend in overtime. The whole Peyton Manning can’t play in cold weather theory is somewhat of a myth. Most quarterbacks struggle in extreme temperatures and winds. But there is no question that the way these two teams are built, the Broncos with a prolific passing attack and the Patriots being a power running team (sounds crazy to say, right?), having mild weather on game day greatly benefits the Broncos.

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