Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Broncos And Patriots Get Set For A Super Bowl Sending Showdown, As Two Of The Best To Ever Play Square Off For AFC Supremacy

One of football's all-time great player rivalries takes center stage once again Sunday, as Tom Brady and his #2 seeded Patriots take on Peyton Manning and his #1 seeded Broncos in Mile High. This will be the 15th head to head matchup between the two sure-fire Hall of Famers, with Brady getting the upper hand in 10 out of the previous 14 contests. A win for Manning's Broncos would go a long way helping the greatest regular season quarterback of all time shed his anti-clutch label (he's currently 10-11 in the postseason with many of those loses coming as home favorites). And a win for Brady would mean an NFL record sixth Super Bowl appearance, along with a shot at tying Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana's four championship rings. 

The Pats secured their third straight AFC title game appearance by steamrolling the Indianapolis Colts 43-22 in Foxborough, behind a dominant effort from their three-headed backfield. LeGarrette Blount rolled his way to 166 rushing yards on just 24 carries to go along with his four touchdowns. Steven Ridley added 52 yards and two scores, but most importantly held onto the rock and didn't fumble, and Shane Vereen finished third on the team in targets with six. Their defense also picked off Andrew Luck four times to help seal the deal. 

Denver headed into the fourth quarter of their Divisional round game versus the Chargers sitting pretty with a 17-0 lead. But after losing corner back Chris Harris Jr. to a torn ACL, Phillip Rivers and Keenan Allen were able to connect on a pair of 16 yard passing touchdowns to make it close. A successful onside kick, followed by a Nick Novak field goal, had Broncos fans getting flashbacks of their crippling 2012 playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Luckily for them, the General, Peyton Manning, was able to connect with tight end Julius Thomas on two consecutive third and longs to secure the victory in the game's closing minutes

The Pats got the upper hand when these two teams squared off back in week 12, overcoming a 24 point deficit by winning 34-31 in overtime. Weather played a big factor (both teams lost three fumbles each and a handful more were recovered by their own team) and with the early lead the Broncos were able to relay heavily on their run game, almost to a fault. Knowshon Moreno carried the ball a staggering 37 times for a career high 244 yards, in what was surprisingly the only game of the season in which he cracked the century mark. But many people felt that by abandoning their bread and butter (Manning finished up the game with just 150 passing yards, his lowest single game total in '13 by more than 100 yards), they allowed New England to hang around and claw their way back. 

Don't expect a similar game plan this time around. Despite New England's 30th ranked run defense (much of which can be attributed to the losses of DT's Vince Wolfork and Tommy Kelly, and LB's Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo) the Broncos need to play to their strengths and let Manning pick the Pats apart with his arm. By now we're all well aware of the record shattering regular season this team has put together. They averaged nearly 38 points per game and broke the records for most total points in a season (606), touchdowns in a season (76), passing touchdowns in a season (55) and passing yards (5,572). 

At 37 years of age Manning is playing the game at a level that's never been duplicated before, with a supporting cast of weapons that would make Kim Jong-Un blush. But despite all that he's accomplished so far this season, I'm not ready to rule out Belichick and Brady quite yet.

This year's Pats team evokes the same gritty, against all odds feeling that became synonymous with their title teams of the early 2000s. It doesn't seem to matter who goes down with an injury, once they step on the field in blue and white they seem to elevate their game to Brady's level. 

It was the veteran, jack of all trades wide out, Julian Edelman, not the high priced free agent Danny Amendola, who surpassed even the organization's wildest expectations, while doing his best to replicate the production lost by Wes Welker, serving as the de facto safety blanket whenever New England needed to convert for a first down. The emergence of the Pats all encompassing run game will only serve to open things up for when Brady does decide to take to the air against Denver's depleted secondary. 

I already mentioned that corner back Chris Harris will be M.I.A. from the Bronco backfield, but the team is also easing Champ Bailey back into action from a foot injury. It remains to be seen whether or not he'll be out there every down or just in situation packages. That means Denver may be forced to roll with the over-the-hill Quentin Jammer, which would have Brady licking his chops.

After more than a decade of watching these two quarterbacks duke it out, we begin to take for granted just how lucky we are to be able to witness this level of excellence year in and year out. Just two masters of their craft, battling for another shot at glory, leaving only the pages of their eventual history books in their wake. It's impossible to know how many more of these Manning/Brady showcases we're going to be able to watch on a stage this bright, so I advise everyone who is a fan of the game to soak it all in on Sunday, because this is going to be a memorable one. 

I expect a lot of points, a lot of jawing back and forth, and a lot of post-game tears, both of joy and sadness, when it is all said and done. I think this is a game we're going to be telling our grandchildren about someday. Give me the Pats in an instant classic, as Brady continues his uphill march to reclaim his greatest postseason quarterback of all time belt, while Manning gets ready to chase another title next fall.

Prediction: Patriots 30, Broncos 28

-fresh (@danye33)

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