Peyton Manning is 37. Tom Brady is 36.
They meet for the 15th time in one of the great quarterback rivalries of all time. Brady holds a 10-4 edge, including a 2-1 mark in the postseason. But it’s been seven years since they last met in the playoffs.
This is a dream matchup for the NFL and CBS.
Denver had home-field advantage throughout the playoffs last season — and at 3-1 had the best odds of winning the Super Bowl — but lost in the divisional round to Baltimore 38-35 in two overtimes after blowing a late lead. The Broncos, again playing the role of favorite, held off the Chargers 24-17 in the divisional round this season to advance to the title game. Denver is 27-7, including 1-1 in the postseason, since signing Manning before the 2012 season. The Broncos have a long Super Bowl drought, with their last appearance coming to end the 1998 season. John Elway retired after that game, winning his second consecutive title.
New England is making what seems like an annual trip to the AFC Championship Game. The Patriots are 7-2 all-time in the AFC title game. Brady has played in seven of those, going 5-2 in his career in AFC Championship Games. No quarterback has won more than five conference championships. Peyton Manning said last week that Bill Belichick will “go down as the greatest NFL coach of all time.” With five Super Bowl appearances, he needs one more to tie Don Shula for the most in history. Chuck Noll is the only coach with four Super Bowl victories.
What’s working for the Patriots
New England has feasted on the right arm of Brady since he became the starter in 2001. But since tight end Rob Gronkowski tore his anterior cruciate ligament against the Browns, the Patriots have become more balanced. In the four games since Gronkowski was lost for the season, the Patriots have 739 rushing yards and 815 passing yards. LeGarrette Blount has 478 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in that four-game stretch, including 166 yards and four touchdowns in the divisional-round victory over the Colts.
Cause for concern
The Patriots, without Gronkowski, don’t have the weapons the Broncos do. It might be tough for them to keep up or catch up if this game becomes a track meet. The Patriots lack an elite receiver. Julian Edelman led the Patriots with 105 catches for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns. Danny Amendola had 54 catches for 633 yards and two touchdowns. The Patriots need rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson and possibly veteran Austin Collie to contribute.
What’s working for the Broncos
The Broncos’ hurry-up offense is a thing of beauty. They ran a league-high 1,156 plays in 2013, with the Patriots a close second with 1,138. Two receivers have 1,000 yards and four had double-digit touchdowns. Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker are hard to stop. Julius Thomas is fully recovered from an ankle injury, leading the Broncos with 76 receiving yards last week. Welker returned after missing three games with a concussion and caught six passes for 38 yards and a touchdown. Manning made the most of his underneath throws last week, averaging 6.4 yards per attempt to seven receivers.
Cause for concern
Cornerback Chris Harris, who played more snaps than any other Broncos defender this season, tore his anterior cruciate ligament last week. Denver allowed 17 points on the three full possessions it played without him against the Chargers. Champ Bailey, a 15-year veteran, returns to a starting role after a foot injury limited him this season.
* Injured reserve
Only twice in the past 20 years have the top seeds in both conferences advanced to the Super Bowl. The last time was the Saints and Colts in 2009. Denver and Seattle will be tough to beat at home, but history says one likely will lose. It’s hard to bet against Belichick and Brady. Patriots 33, Broncos 31. — Charean Williams