For the eighth time in the last twelve years, the New England Patriots will be in the AFC Championship Game. It is a remarkable achievement. But the Patriots have no time to relish in their accomplishments, they have their eyes set higher. They want to reach the Super Bowl for the sixth time in that span. They want to win their fourth Super Bowl since 2001.
The 2001 Super Bowl championship was unexpected. If the Patriots go on to win it all this year, this championship will be equally as unexpected. Not because the expectations weren't there at the beginning of the season. They were. They always are. But injuries decimated this team. Or, at least, they should have. And it wasn't just injuries. In June, Aaron Hernandez was lost to the team (and to society... and good riddance). Then the injuries started. Vince Wilfork, Sebastian Volmer, Rob Gronkowski, Tommy Kelly, and Jerod Mayo were all lost for the season. Just last week, Brandon Spikes was placed on injured reserve.
Despite all the injuries, the Patriots have persevered. Many say this may be Bill Belichick's best job yet as Patriots head coach. They may be right. A Super Bowl championship may validate that theory.
Standing in the way of the Patriots and another visit to the Super Bowl is an old foe. It's not the first time Peyton Manning has stood in the way of the Patriots and a date with destiny. In the 2006 AFC Championship Game, the Patriots appeared to be on their way to beating the Colts. They had a 21-3 lead at halftime. If they won, they most assuredly would have beaten the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl and won their fourth Super Bowl in six years. A dynasty would have been achieved. Tom Brady would have cemented his legacy as the greatest quarterback of all-time.
We all remember how that game turned out. It was the second hardest defeat I've had to endure during the Brady Era. Manning led a comeback and it would be the Colts that would go on to the Super Bowl and be crowned champions.
That game could be viewed as a turning point in the Patriots fortunes during the Brady years. The Patriots have continued to be very good since. In 2007, they were great. However, the Patriots have not won a Super Bowl since. Brady has been a pedestrian 6-5 in playoff games since that loss to Peyton Manning.
The worst part may be that eight years later, we need to endure the debate of who is better-- Manning or Brady. Had the Patriots not choked in that game, Brady would have had his fourth ring and Manning would still be here without one. There would be no debate.
As is, Manning, at age 37, had the greatest regular season any quarterback has ever had. Now a Bronco, he threw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns-- both NFL single-season records.
It seemed destined to come to this. I predicted in the preseason that these two teams would cast aside all pretenders and face off in Denver for one more epic battle. And here we are.
It is easy to get caught up in the debate about which quarterback would you rather have. Who is the greatest quarterback of this generation? But the fact of the matter is-- this game will be decided by which team is better.
As much as I want to pick the Patriots to win, I believe this game is where the injuries finally catch up to the Patriots. Manning's supporting cast is just better than Brady's. Not that that has ever impeded Brady before. But in order for the Patriots to win, in my opinion, their offense will need to put up at least five touchdowns to beat Denver. Can they do it? I wouldn't count them out.
Am I concerned the Patriots are playing in Denver instead of in Foxboro? No. I am more concerned that the weather forecast calls for temperatures to be in the fifties on Sunday. If this were a typical cold weather game in January, I would most certainly pick Brady and the Patriots.
Manning has a lot to prove. The last time he had something to prove may have been in early December when he faced the Tennessee Titans in sub-twenty degree weather in Denver. Knowing the criticism about not being a cold-weather quarterback, Manning went out and threw for 397 yards and four touchdowns. After the game, Manning told a radio station, "Whoever wrote that narrative can shove that where the sun don't shine."
Manning will be looking to write a new narrative Sunday. The Patriots' suspect secondary will be hard-pressed to stop Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker, Julius Thomas, and Andre Caldwell. Manning just has too many weapons. Aqib Talib can't cover them all.
Knowshon Moreno is no slouch at running back, either. The Broncos could choose to attack the middle of the Patriots' front seven. The losses of Wilfork, Kelly, Mayo, and Spikes leaves a gaping hole there. Chris Jones, Joe Vellano, Dont'a Hightower, and Sealver Siliga have all played admirably filling in. But the Patriots still finished ranked 30th in rush defense.
It is important to note that Denver raced out to a 24-0 lead when the two teams met in New England earlier this year. Moreno rushed for 224 yards in that game. The Patriots would win thanks in large part to Wes Welker muffing a punt late in the game.
Offensively, the Patriots will look to air it out. Brady may be a bit rusty after relying heavily on the running attack the last few games. The Patriots haven't played in good weather in about a month. LeGarrette Blount has been amazing the last two games (in sloppy weather conditions), but don't expect the same in Denver. Denver's defense is ranked 7th against the run and 28th against the pass.
Denver also lost starting cornerback Chris Harris for the season. He tore his ACL in Denver's victory over the San Diego Chargers last week. Denver lost star linebacker Von Miller earlier in the season to a torn ACL. This will make it even more appealing for the Patriots to abandon their ground game and attack through the air. This game is being billed as Brady vs. Manning, after all, not Blount vs. Moreno.
Brady has struggled in recent playoffs. Brady is praised for his 18-7 playoff record, but some may forget that he started his career 10-0. His first playoff loss? In Denver in 2005. That means Brady is 8-7 in his last fifteen playoff games. Peyton Manning has faced criticism for being only 10-11 career in the playoffs. Again, Manning will have something to prove.
The Patriots can, obviously, win. Wide receiver Aaron Dobson has been spotted at practice this week. That would help. I look for Stevan Ridley to have a bigger game than Blount. The matchup and conditions should be better for Ridley. Brady should have time to throw and look for him to pass for close to 400 yards, but I fear a key interception or some sort of brain cramp (think safety in Super Bowl XLVI). The emergence of rookie linebacker Jamie Collins could also be a game-changer.
The kickers could also play a key role. Denver has one of the best. Matt Prater kicked a NFL record 64-yard field goal this year. The Patriots have a pretty good kicker, too, though. Consider any possession just past midfield as being in field goal range.
If the Patriots are to win, they'll need to force turnovers. They did it against Andrew Luck, but Manning is not Luck. My crystal ball shows tight end Julius Thomas playing a key role in this game. I see a fumble or a deflected pass for an interception. I think the stage may be too big for the converted basketball player.
I've been wrong before, and I hope I am wrong now, but my brain tells me: Denver 41, New England 31.
My prediction for the NFC Championship Game: Seattle 20, San Francisco 13.
One thing is for sure, it will be a great day of football and one we should all remember. The first game will be a matchup of two of the greatest quarterbacks of the past. The second game will be a matchup of two of the up-and-coming great quarterbacks of the future. The question waiting to be answered-- which quarterback represents the present?