By this time we’ve heard the narrative enough to make our heads spin: Tom Brady will take on Peyton Manning in the AFC Championship in a game that will determine a lot more than who gets to represent the conference in this year’s Super Bowl.
While the contest features two of the game’s top five quarterbacks, and they will undoubtedly play a roll on determining the outcome, it’s important to remember there will be 104 other men suiting up on the field Sunday who want to have their name remembered as part of NFL folklore.
In short, as much as this is about the quarterbacks, it’s about the team and what team can impose its will on the other more over 60 minutes.
If this game doesn’t have the hairs on your neck standing up, then you simply aren’t a football fan. It may very well be the best AFC Championship game ever played, which says a lot considering the significant injuries each team has had to overcome this season, and postseason.
The introduction for this one could go on for 3,000 words or more, but let’s skip ahead and see how the Patriots match up on offense position by position:
Quarterback: Tom Brady
Brady’s playing everybody — OK. Don’t think a little sickness is going to sideline one of the game’s all-time great competitors. I don’t like him as much as the next Bronco fan, but I certainly respect him and know he’s fully capable of going for a 300 yard, four touchdown passing game even without top targets Rob Gronkowski (leg) and Aaron Hernandez (prison). Sorry, I couldn’t resist going there.
Compared to his counter part though, Brady just doesn’t have as many reliable weapons. The Broncos are the highest-scoring offense in league history, let’s not forget about this fact. Does this give Peyton the edge in this match up of all-time greats? One would think, but if history has told us anything, it’s not to sleep on Brady no matter what the situation. Although he doesn’t have a winning record in Denver, it doesn’t mean he’s incapable over coming and stealing the destiny right from the Mile High City.
Advantage: Even (Come on, the QB see-saw is as balanced as it can possibly be when Brady and Manning or on it together.)
Running backs: LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden
A lot of folks are saying this game will be won on the ground, which has to be the biggest irony in NFL history considering the guys under center. Stopping Blount is the Broncos first priority, as no rusher is hotter than him right now. However, if he isn’t operating at full speed and chances are the mile high air may get to him, then the defense will have to work at limiting Ridley on the ground and Vereen through the air.
The Patriots do have a variety of weapons coming out of the backfield, but the talent level is still slightly less than the Broncos’ two-headed monster of Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball. Both can catch and both have become astute pass protectors for Manning. As long as they don’t put the rock on the ground, they will prove to be the difference makers in a positive way.
Wide receivers: Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Kembrell Thompkins, Austin Collie
Don’t underestimate New England’s receivers. I’m sure they’ve heard all the breakdowns and analysis this week and they will be hungry to prove the critics wrong. Not to mention, they could be looking at some 60 passes from Tom Brady if the Pats fall behind at any point in this game. I don’t think this gives them the edge by any means, when you look over to the Broncos sidelines, but it will inflate their stats and give someone like Thompkins to play the role of hero again.
It’s worth noting here that Edelman torched the Broncos secondary in November when the teams squared off, and that the Broncos will be without star corner Chris Harris. If you hadn’t heard that last bit by now, please return your fan-hood card to the front desk immediately.
In short, the Broncos secondary is going to need to make a big play (an interception would be nice) or several to give the home team a shot of advancing. Nonetheless, Denver’s receivers are better and do win this position-specific match up, even if by a smaller margin than most would assume.
Tight Ends: Michael Hoomanawanui, DJ Williams
Don’t sleep on Brady’s tight ends. Does this sound familiar? He’s done more with the less, even though this seems to be his worst options at the tight end position in over ten years. Expect him to try to exploit Denver over the middle, where they’ve been vulnerable this season. Kudos to the middle of the Broncos defense though. Last week, they were able to limit the Chargers tight ends successfully, which was a great relief to Bronco fans everywhere.
Paging Jack Del Rio: use that same strategy again, because it worked.
Offensive Line: Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly, Marcus Cannon
Bill Belichick is just the better coach here, it’s that plain and that simple. I’m sure he’s more than aware of how crucial the offensive line play is in getting him to a sixth Super Bowl. If they keep Brady upright and don’t let Denver’s pass rush control the game, especially early like they did last week, then the Patriots’ offense will run at a high pace — one that not even Denver may not be able to catch up with. I hope I’m wrong here, but I see a big day from the men up front in New England and that could prove to be the difference.
It’s not Brady’s best line ever, but they certainly can carry this team all the way to the Super Bowl. Similar to every other position on the Patriots offense, don’t sleep on these hogs.