How many storylines can exist heading into one football game? Apparently, a lot when it's Tom Brady and Bill Belichick against Peyton Manning in the AFC Championship Game. For starters, this game will be a rematch of a wildly entertaining comeback win for the Patriots over Denver in Week 12; they trailed 24-0 at halftime and won 34-31. This Sunday is also being hyped as Tom Brady-Peyton Manning XV, and while Brady is 10-4 in the previous matchups most national pundits continue to wax poetic about Manning. Most predict a Denver victory. The game also features ex-Patriot Wes Welker, who spurned the Pats to don Bronco orange, trying to help Manning clinch his third trip to the Super Bowl. And ultimately it's all about the Super Bowl, and in that vein, this game is more aptly considered Brady-Manning III because it's the third time these Canton-bound QBs have squared off with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. This narrative is most intriguing, as both QBs have won one and lost one.
For the Patriots expectations are always high. Even in a year of devastating attrition - Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, and Rob Gronkowski are all injured and done for the year - the franchise persevered and will play in a third consecutive AFC Championship Game. The late-season emergence of running back LeGarrette Blount gives New England an explosive running attack, something they've lacked in the nine years since Robert Kraft last hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. Blount was originally behind Stevan Ridley on the depth chart, but as Ridley battled fumblitis and Brady lost his weapons in the passing game (Gronk, Danny Amendola, and Shane Vereen all went down) the team turned to Blount. As the postseason approached he began to deliver. He had 4TDs against the Colts in the Divisional Round, his first career playoff game, and will undoubtedly lead the way against Denver as well. The Broncos have poor run defense so the Patriots will likely feature Blount early to open up the passing attack for Brady.
If the running game gets going it will help New England bleed the clock and reduce the number of possessions for the Broncos. This is critical, for this game will be decided by how many opportunities, or lack thereof, Manning has to march Denver down the field. No question, the Patriots are decimated on defense and will struggle to contain a passing attack that features quick and shifty receivers like Welker and Eric Decker, but also big targets like Demaryius Thomas and TE Julius Thomas. Belichick will likely deploy Aqib Talib to counteract Demaryius Thomas, which leaves the rest of New England's young secondary responsible for all other targets. Hopefully upstart linebacker Jamie Collins can continue to impress this week and help out in coverage, and if Chandler Jones can get pressure on Manning, the future Hall-of-Famer may turn the ball over.
Brady should be able to pick apart the Denver defense, especially with the play-action after Blount gets rolling. But can the Patriots keep up? Denver's offense is prolific and multi-dimensional; even if Manning is contained they also run the ball extremely well with Knowshon Moreno. Therefore, it is not surprising that Denver, playing at home, is favored by 5 points. Nor will it be surprising if Tom Brady runs his record to 11-4 against Manning and is playing in his sixth Super Bowl next month in the Meadowlands. Storylines abound, as do the possible directions this game could go. Are you ready for some football??