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AFC Championship preview: Patriots at Broncos

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff  January 19, 2014 06:00 AM

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Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have an opportunity to guide the Patriots to their sixth Super Bowl berth together while trying to realize their fourth championship, a journey that has now spanned nine years since claiming their last title.

With the opportunity to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLVIII on the line, all that stands in Brady and Belichick’s way is Peyton Manning and the top-seeded Denver Broncos, a team that has put together a record-breaking offense featuring an array of playmakers who have caused fits for opponents.

But this is a game hyped for its two popular quarterbacks and the history they share.

Brady is 10-4 all-time against Manning, with Brady victorious in his last three games against the Denver quarterback. However the last time these two faced off with a Super Bowl berth on the line, Manning, then with the Indianapolis Colts, was the one who came away victorious, winning 38-34.

Denver has the top-ranked offense in the NFL, breaking the 2007 Patriots' record for most points in a season with 606, including 76 touchdowns (just one more than the ’07 Patriots). And the Broncos feature five players who scored 10 or more touchdowns in the regular season, breaking the previous NFL mark of three.

Manning was particularly stellar, passing for a record 55 touchdowns (breaking Brady’s record of 50) and 5,477 yards.

“I don’t really think about those things truthfully,” Brady told members of the press earlier in the week. “It’s just not where my mind is. He’s a great player, they’ve got a great team and one of the best offenses in history. I think what that means for us is we'd better be ready to score some points, because that’s what they do best. They outscore you and they can score quickly, they can run the ball like they did against us last time.”

Belichick and Denver coach John Fox have their own history as well, with Belichick leading his counterpart, 6-1. Belichick bested Fox while he was with the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

It is those matchup numbers that speak to a favorable outcome for the Patriots, who are 7-2 all-time in AFC Championship games. Manning, for his part, acknowledges that preparing for Belichick teams are some of his toughest games.

“It’s certainly a great challenge when you play against teams coached by Bill Belichick,” Manning said. “That goes back to my first couple of years when he was the defensive coordinator with the Jets, and then he gets the head job with the Patriots. His teams, his defenses when he was coordinator, like I said, [are] always well-coached, always well-disciplined, and you know it’s going to be a 60-minute fight.”

Manning helped guide the Broncos to a 24-point lead over the Patriots in Week 12 before seeing Brady and the Patriots chip away in the second half before walking away with a 34-31 loss on a Stephen Gostkowski field goal in overtime. The Broncos ran for 280 yards, with running back Knowshon Moreno tallying 224 yards on 37 carries. Patriots receiver Julian Edelman caught nine passes for 110 yards and two touchdowns. Rob Gronkowski caught seven passes for 90 yards and a touchdown.

But things have changed for both teams. The Patriots won’t have Gronkowski to help them over the middle of the field. Neither will they have linebacker Brandon Spikes to help stop the run game. It won’t be 22-degree weather (with a wind chill of 7) to affect game conditions. Broncos tight end Julius Thomas (65 receptions, 788 yards, 12 touchdowns) is back from a knee injury. Denver has lost linebacker Von Miller (torn ACL) and cornerback Chris Harris (torn ACL). All of that makes Sunday’s game a tossup with the Lamar Hunt trophy on the line.

Here are the details:

Kickoff: 3:05 p.m.

Records: Patriots 12-4 regular season (1-0 postseason); Broncos 13-3 regular season (1-0 postseason).

TV, radio: CBS (Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson); 98.5 FM The Sports Hub (Bob Socci, Scott Zolak), Westwood One (Kevin Harlan, Dan Fouts, Tim Ryan), Univision radio (Raul Stricker, Jr., Joaquin Duro).

Projected starting lineups:
Based on information distributed to the media, practice observations, and injury reports.

Patriots offense: WR Kenbrell Thompkins, LT Nate Solder, LG Logan Mankins, C Ryan Wendell, RG Dan Connolly, RT Marcus Cannon, TE Michael Hoomanawanui, WR Julian Edelman, QB Tom Brady, RB LeGarrette Blount, WR Danny Amendola.

Patriots defense: LE Rob Ninkovich, DT Sealver Siliga, DT Chris Jones, DE Chandler Jones, LB Dont'a Hightower, LB Dane Fletcher, LB Jamie Collins, CB Aqib Talib, CB Alfonzo Dennard, S Devin McCourty, S Steve Gregory.

Broncos offense: WR Demaryius Thomas, LT Chris Clark, LG Zane Beadles, C Manny Ramirez, RG Louis Vasquez, RT Orlando Franklin, TE Julius Thomas, WR Eric Decker, WR Wes Welker, QB Peyton Manning, RB Knowshon Moreno.

Broncos defense: LDE Malik Jackson, DT Sylvester Williams, NT Terrance Knighton, RDE Shaun Phillips, SLB Nate Irving, MLB Wesley Woodyard, WLB Danny Trevathan, LCB Champ Bailey, RCB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, SS Duke Ihenacho, FS Mike Adams.

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Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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