So they meet again. For the 17th time overall and the fifth time in the playoffs, two of the best quarterbacks ever -- Tom Brady and Peyton Manning -- will square off in Sunday's AFC Championship game between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots.
If this is the last rodeo for the 39-year-old Manning, the football gods couldn't have scripted a better final chapter in perhaps the most storied quarterback rivalry in the modern era. It's a win-or-go-home showdown, with a trip to the Super Bowl as the prize for the victor. While many are tired of the repeated Brady-Manning hype, it is hard to ignore the historic nature of this game. Their five postseason meetings are the most by two quarterbacks in NFL history.
Brady's Patriots have owned Manning's Colts and Broncos, winning 11 of the 16 head-to-head clashes, but it's been a more even matchup in the playoffs. The rivals have split their four postseason meetings, with the home team coming out on top each time. Manning also owns a 2-1 advantage in conference title games. The last two times they faced off in this situation -- with a Super Bowl appearance on the line -- Manning was the winner in 2013 and 2006.
A couple of months ago, few could have imagined that we'd get to witness another playoff battle between these two future Hall of Famers. With a roster depleted by injuries to key players and their offense slumping, the Patriots closed out the regular season losing four of their final six contests. Manning, meanwhile, was in the midst of the worst statistical season of his career, and missed six games down the stretch with a painful foot injury.
Thanks to a near-complete and now-healthy lineup, the Patriots erased much of that gloom and doom with a decisive win over the Kansas City Chiefs last weekend. For the 10th time in 15 seasons, and the fifth year in a row, they are headed to the AFC Championship. Another win on Sunday would give them a record-setting nine Super Bowl appearances, one more than the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys.
Manning eventually returned to the field in Week 17 and led Denver to a comeback win over the San Diego Chargers, clinching the top seed in the AFC. With Manning under center again last weekend, the Broncos got some timely plays from their vaunted defense and dispatched of the Steelers to advance to their second title game in three seasons. They are trying to join the aforementioned trio as the only teams to make eight Super Bowl appearances.
The headlines might center on the Brady vs. Manning narrative, but the truth is that the most pivotal matchup on Sunday pits one of the league's best quarterbacks against the NFL's most dominant defense. How Brady handles the Broncos' disruptive defensive unit will go a long way toward deciding the outcome of this game. Denver finished the regular season as the top-ranked team in total defense, sacks and fewest yards allowed per play.
Getting pressure on Brady with its fearsome defensive front is imperative to slowing down New England's attack. Of Brady's five most-pressured games this season, the Patriots lost three, including their loss to Denver in Week 12. The Patriots' offensive line has been banged-up and struggled to protect Brady all season, giving up the second-highest amount of total pressures (sacks, hits, and hurries) in the league.
Perhaps more important for the Broncos, though, is the ability of their secondary to play lockdown man coverage and force Brady to hold the ball long enough for the pass rush to penetrate the backfield. They allowed the fewest passing yards per game and yards per pass attempt, and three of their cornerbacks -- Chris Harris, Aqib Talib, Bradley Roby -- received top-30 player grades at Pro Football Focus.
New England has been able to mitigate the damage of its poor pass-protection unit with a "fast pass" offensive game plan that is uniquely suited to neutralize a strong pass rush. Brady, who had the fastest average time-to-throw in the NFL this season (2.35 seconds), understands that he has to get the ball out quickly and into his playmakers hands if the Patriots are going to put points on the board.
For the Patriots, the key to stopping the Broncos also starts up front with keeping their run game in check. Denver's passing attack has been in shambles for much of the season, and moving the ball on the ground efficiently remains critical to their success. Gary Kubiak's team is 9-0 when it runs for at least 105 yards and 7-0 when it averages at least 4.5 yards per rush.
Who to Watch
While the rest of the world focuses on the two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, the performance of two other players could be the deciding factor in who will make the trip to Santa Clara in two weeks.
A healthy and productive Julian Edelman is the key to the Patriots' dynamic offense. Edelman had 10 catches for 100 yards against the Chiefs, and his mere presence on the field opened up things for New England's quick-hitting spread attack. The Patriots are 10-0 this season with Edelman in the lineup, and six of their seven 30-point games came when they had their full stable of receivers (Edelman, Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola) available.
The engine that fuels the Broncos rushing attack is C.J. Anderson, who has come on strong recently after a slow start to the season. His six best games by rushing yardage have come after the bye, including a season-high 113 yards against New England in late November. He is averaging 6.1 yards per rush since Week 8, the highest mark among all running backs in that span.
How to watch
When: 3:05 p.m. ET
Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver
Commentators: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson
Online: Verizon NFL Mobile
The Patriots are 3-point favorites and the over/under is 44, according to OddsShark.com.
The experts are mostly picking the Patriots to win this game on the road. The majority of the ESPN panel is siding with the road team and at CBS Sports, seven of the eight guys are taking New England, with Pete Prisco as the lone Broncos supporter. Here at SB Nation, six of our eight panelists have the Patriots. The only Denver backers are Stephen White and the OddsShark computer.