Sunday's AFC championship game in Denver is being billed as another showdown between Hall of Fame quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, but it's the supporting cast members such as Broncos' tight end Julius Thomas (80) who could be the determining factor in the outcome of this highly-anticipated showdown.
Michael Parente - MP@990WBOB.com
Everyone living outside of Colorado and New England is probably sick of the Peyton Manning-Tom Brady rivalry that will renew itself again for what seems like the millionth time in Sunday’s AFC championship game, sort of like how baseball fans through the years have grown tired of the Yankees-Red Sox border war and all the curses, ghosts and goblins riding shotgun.
Too bad, because we’re not sick of it yet, and so begins the next chapter of the Branning Bowl. Or is the Mandy Bowl? Whatever you call it, it’s the NFL’s main attraction on Championship Sunday, New England and Denver trading blows with a trip to Super Bowl XLVIII at stake. And who better to steer the ship than two elite, Hall of Fame-bound quarterbacks meeting for the 15th time in their illustrious history and fourth time in the postseason? It’s the only matchup capable of overshadowing what figures to be a classic defensive battle between Seattle and San Francisco in the NFC title game.
There’s no point rehashing Manning’s playoff history, a 10-11 record featuring eight one-and-dones and two losses to the Patriots, or dredging up Brady’s recent postseason futility, which includes losses in five of his last nine games. Anything can happen in Sunday’s rematch, but the one thing we do know is several key players who starred in November won’t be on the field this time around, whereas a handful of players out of action the first time will be back in the lineup this weekend.
Von Miller, the Broncos’ explosive linebacker who returned a fumble 60 yards for a touchdown at Gillette in November and later forced a fumble on Brady, tore his ACL in the regular-season finale and is done for the year. Teammate Chris Harris, arguably Denver’s most indispensable defensive back who played on every defensive package this year, tore his in Sunday’s playoff win over San Diego and will also be out for Sunday’s conference title game. That’s huge. As good as New England has been at running the ball in recent weeks, Brady has to be licking his chops with the opportunity to launch bombs on Quentin Jammer and the aging Champ Bailey. This could open the door for Julian Edelman or Danny Amendola to expose the underbelly of Denver’s defense, if and when the Broncos overcompensate for their lack of a safety valve deep in the secondary.
With that said, running back LeGarrette Blount has enjoyed a renaissance these past few weeks in New England with eight touchdowns in three games, including a franchise-record four in last week’s win over Indianapolis. Blount was the third option on the depth chart in November behind Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden. He rushed just twice for 13 yards in the first game against Denver. A late-season adjustment to his pad level has led to stronger performances in recent weeks, making Blount the new No. 1 option out of the backfield. After rushing for 189 yards in the season finale against Buffalo and an additional 166 last weekend against the Colts, both on a season-high 24 carries, you can bank on Blount being a bigger part of the game plan Sunday than he was in November. They'll need him now that tight end Rob Gronkowski, who caught seven passes for 90 yards and a touchdown the first time against Denver, is now on injured weapon.
The Broncos also have an offensive weapon who figures to play a bigger role Sunday than he did the first time these two teams met. Tight end Julius Thomas didn’t play at Gillette in the regular season due to a knee injury. Since his return in early December, Thomas has averaged five catches per game with a pair of touchdowns. He saved the season Sunday with two critical third-down catches on the Broncos’ final drive to help them run out the clock and stave off San Diego’s furious second-half rally. The highlight was a 21-yard grab on a high throw toward the sideline on 3rd-and-17, followed by a nine-yard grab in tight coverage over the middle on 3rd-and-6, the final nail in the Chargers’ coffin.
Denver’s aggressiveness on third down was a stark contrast to its conservative play-calling last year against the Ravens in the divisional playoffs when it failed to gain what would’ve been the game-ending first down by running the ball five times with marginal success, allowing Baltimore to regain possession and send the game to overtime, where it eventually won on a field goal by Justin Tucker. The shift in philosophy is a testament to Thomas’ growth, not Denver’s trust in Manning; the third-year tight end enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2013 with career highs in receptions (65), yards (788) and touchdowns (12).
Given how the Patriots struggled to defend tight ends late in the season, allowing four touchdowns to tight ends during a four-week stretch from mid-November to early-December, this is a potential mismatch the Broncos will try to exploit, especially with Patriots' linebacker Brandon Spikes out for the season, both because of a lingering knee injury and the fact he showed up late to practice last week during a snowstorm. Spikes' absence might also play a factor in New England's ability to stop the run, though it's hard to imagine Denver topping the 280 yards it racked up at Gillette in November.
The talking heads will beat the Manning-Brady angle to death long before the sun rises on Sunday morning, and rightfully so. This is where legends are made, and legacies go to die. But neither quarterback would be where he is today without a strong supporting cast, and it’s those behind-the-scenes contributors and indispensable role players who will undoubtedly decide who punches their ticket to New York in February.
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