New England Patriots at Denver Broncos
When: 2 p.m.
TV: Ch. 4 (Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Nancy Wolfson)
Line: Broncos by 5½
This is the matchup everyone has been waiting for: Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning. The aging quarterbacks again battling for a chance to play in the Super Bowl. If the Patriots win, Brady will be playing in his sixth title game in the past 13 years. If Manning wins, he might shed his reputation as someone who fades on the big stage. But, it’s not necessarily the same old story this time around. Both the Broncos and Patriots have been winning with balanced offenses, relying not only on the arms of their record-breaking quarterbacks but also on their running games. This is the Patriots’ first road playoff game since the 2006 season. Both teams have been very good in conference title games (Patriots 7-2, Broncos 6-2).
New England overcame a 24-0 halftime deficit on Nov. 24 to defeat Denver 34-31 in overtime. Patriots coach Bill Belichick is 7-10 vs. the Broncos. Broncos coach John Fox is 1-6 vs. the Patriots.
The Patriots use a trio of running backs, but none was more productive last week than LeGarrette Blount. He had a monster day against the Colts, rushing 24 times for 166 yards and four TDs.
The Patriots might have beaten the Broncos in November, but the last time Manning lost twice in a row to the same team was in 2007. He has won five rematches in a row.
When Patriots have the ball
Denver has a dilemma: Would it rather force the clutch-passing Brady to go to the air or deal with the run game? The Broncos defense was staunch for most of the divisional-round victory over San Diego, but it has lots of holes and is without its best player, injured linebacker Von Miller. Losing cornerback Chris Harris to a knee injury won’t help, either.
When Broncos have the ball
Patriots coach Bill Belichick will instruct his defensive backs to be extra physical from the outset. So the ability of receivers big — Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and tight end Julius Thomas — and small (Wes Welker) to avoid those bumps and remain on their routes will be critical for Denver.