The old rivalry feels new again.
This is the 15th installment of Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning, but only the third time the two have met with Manning quarterbacking the Denver Broncos, and the first time in the AFC Championship game. Brady-Manning was once a time-honored tradition in the postseason -- the two squared off three times, with Brady winning two -- but the two quarterbacks have not met in the playoffs since 2006.
Of course, the game will be decided by more than just two players -- usually, the key plays in the game are made by players other than Brady and Manning. With that, here's a look at what to look for from the Broncos.
Record: 14-3 (1-0 in the playoffs)
How they got here: The Broncos went 13-3 in the regular season, earning themselves a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. They beat the San Diego Chargers, 24-17, in the divisional round on Sunday to advance to the AFC Championship, their first trip to the conference title game since 2005.
Key cog, offense -- Demaryius Thomas, WR: Manning spread the ball to all his receivers over the course of the season, but Thomas led the team in targets, receptions, yards and touchdowns. Against the Chargers, he caught eight of the 10 passes thrown his way for 54 yards and a touchdown.
The Patriots are intimately familiar with Thomas, who was drafted in the first round of the 2010 draft by then-head coach Josh McDaniels. At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds with elite straight-line speed, Thomas is the prototype boundary receiver. He is a threat whether running vertically on long routes or catching short passes and turning upfield for long gains. He was 20 yards or more beyond the line of scrimmage on 21.7 percent of all passes thrown his way, the 12th-highest percentage in the NFL; he also led the NFL with 697 yards after catch, and ranked fifth with 7.6 yards after catch per reception. Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib did a good job of containing Thomas in the previous meeting, allowing three catches on six targets for 30 yards and a touchdown, while also adding a pass-defensed.
Key cog, defense -- Shaun Phillips, DE: With linebacker Von Miller on injured reserve, Shaun Phillips is by far the team's best pass-rusher in the front seven. At 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds, Phillips may be considered a little smaller than other 4-3 defensive ends, which makes sense because he played 3-4 outside linebacker for eight years with the Chargers. Phillips has thrived in his new role, and logged 10 sacks in 2013 -- the most in a single season for him since 2010.
He rushes primarily from the offense's right side, which means he'll be matched up primarily with right tackle Marcus Cannon, who is much bigger than Phillips at 6-foot-5 and 335 pounds. Phillips is not overly explosive, but he still has some burst in him, and his upper body strength strength makes him solid when bull-rushing and setting the edge in run defense.
X factor -- Julius Thomas, TE: The rookie tight end has emerged as one of the key components of the Broncos offense, but he was out of the lineup with a knee injury the last time these two teams met. Thomas is part of the new wave of athletic receiving tight ends with a background in basketball. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, Thomas is hard to cover simply for his size, but he has above-average speed and quickness running routes down the seam and over the middle. He caught six of the seven passes thrown his way against the Chargers, but dropped an easy one and had a fumble. Rookie linebacker Jamie Collins has the size and athleticism to be a tough matchup for Thomas. Collins was up to the challenge in coverage on Colts tight end Coby Fleener, but Thomas could prove to be an even bigger challenge this weekend, especially considering the quarterback throwing him the ball.
Stats and notes:
- Notable injuries: Cornerback Chris Harris, Jr. (knee, ankle) left the game against the Chargers and did not return. He is set for an MRI on Monday, according to USA Today. Harris is a vital piece of the Broncos' secondary, and played the most snaps of any defensive player on the team with 1,059, according to Pro Football Focus. Von Miller (knee) and defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson (hip) were in the lineup when the two teams met in November, but Vickerson suffered his injury against the Patriots and Miller went down in late December; each was placed on injured reserve shortly thereafter.
- On the flip side of the injury coin, cornerback Champ Bailey has returned to the lineup from his foot injury, but he has played more in the slot than years past (31.3 percent of his plays in coverage). He could find himself matched up with Julian Edelman (49.5 percent of his routes run from the slot).
- The Broncos scored a touchdown on 37.9 percent of their offensive possessions, the highest in the league by 9.1 percent more than the New Orleans Saints. The Broncos also punted on just 34.2 percent of their offensive possessions, the lowest in the league.
- Brady has owned Jack Del Rio defenses over the course of his career; he is 171-of-235 (72.8 percent) for 1,774 yards (7.5 YPA), 17 touchdowns and a 118.3 passer rating when squaring off against a Del Rio defense.
- Third downs have been difficult for the Patriots all season -- they gave up conversions on 42.1 percent of opponents third downs, which ranks 26th in the NFL -- but they could be a nightmare against a Broncos offense that converts 46.3 percent of its third downs, the second-best rate in the league. Of their 96 third-down conversions in the regular season, 79 of them came via pass, and 17 on the ground.
- One more area the Patriots must excel if they want to win: turnovers. The Broncos had 26 total turnovers in 2013 (10 interceptions, league-leading 16 lost fumbles). The Broncos committed three or more turnovers in four games this year, but lost just two -- against the Colts and Patriots. The Patriots have long been known for capitalizing on an opponent's mistakes, as the Colts learned the hard way in the divisional round with four turnovers, but in the last seven games, the Patriots have forced four turnovers as many times as they've forced zero turnovers (three apiece).
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