The NFL got their wish last Sunday when the Denver Broncos overcame the Pittsburgh Steelers to advance to the AFC Championship game.
A 17th - and likely final - meeting between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
Except this isn’t Brady v Manning of old. This won’t be like their gripping encounter in the 2006 AFC Championship game, when Manning, on the verge of being labelled a bottle-job, led the Indianapolis Colts to an 18-point comeback en route to Super Bowl glory.
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Nor will Sunday’s matchup remind us of the 2013 regular season contest, when the pair combined for six touchdowns as Brady’s New England Patriots overcame a 24-0 deficit to edge a 34-31 thriller in overtime.
Both future hall-of-famers were at the peak of their powers in those two meetings. There’s also the exciting 2007 matchup, when Manning’s late fumble sealed a 24-20 win for Brady as the Patriots embarked on a perfect 16-0 regular season.
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Football needed another Brady v Manning game. The two legends couldn’t end it on a Patriots 43-21 blowout win in 2014.
But, though Sunday’s game is expected to be closely fought, it won’t be remembered for the performances of both quarterbacks.
Manning’s 2015 season has been a long and painful journey, and the 39-year-old even admitted that he is a minor cog in a team that has been carried by its defence.
The Sheriff, as he is known, threw more interceptions (17) than touchdowns (nine). His completion percentage (59.8) and average yards per attempt (6.8) were the lowest since 1998, when Manning was a rookie.
Manning no longer throws with velocity, a direct result of over 10,000 throws in regular and postseason games. The “Omaha! Omaha!” shouts at the line of scrimmage, and the knowledge of identifying opposing defences and knowing when to check out of plays, is all he has left.
That clearly isn’t enough at this stage of the season. The opposition is greater and if there’s any coach that knows how to exploit a weakness, it’s Bill Belichick.
Yet, despite Manning’s foibles, the Broncos have hope.
Gary Kubiak’s team are clearly doing something right to reach the final four without quality quarterback play.
As Manning pointed out, it’s the defence that has led Denver this far. Wade Phillips’ dominating unit can cause Brady grave problems on Sunday.
The Edelman effect
The impact Julian Edelman makes to the Patriots offence was clear for all to see in last week’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs. The wide receiver was returning from a seven-game absence due to a broken foot and the stats show the effect he has on Brady’s performance.
According to the New York Daily News' Manish Mehta, Brady averaged 2.55 seconds from snap to release without Edelman. When the wide receiver played, it took Brady 2.21 seconds to get the ball out.
In order to negate Edelman’s involvement, the Broncos secondary must earn their stripes.
Fortunately for Kubiak, the Broncos secondary is one of the league’s best.
How many snaps the injured Chris Harris Jr. plays remains to be seen, but the fact that the All-Pro cornerback is expected to be on the field is a huge boost for Denver. On the other side, Aqib Talib can be relied on to thwart whomever he lines up against.
If the Broncos secondary can lock up Edelman and Danny Amendola, and Phillips can find a way to prevent Rob Gronkowski taking over the game, the Broncos can make full use of their elite pass rush.
Tale of the tape
Denver had a league-high 52 sacks in the regular season and added three more to their total in last week’s win over Pittsburgh. Von Miller earned first team All-Pro honours after an 11-sack season, and he is assisted by star rusher DeMarcus Ware.
"You said two seconds? Sometimes I only need like one [to get to the quarterback],” was Miller’s response when hearing of Brady’s quick release.
Combine the Broncos' ferocious pass rush with the Patriots' flimsy offensive line, which Pro Football Focus ranked as the league’s eighth-worst, and Denver can ruffle Brady early and often.
When the two teams met in November, the Broncos had 179 rushing yards and C.J. Anderson sealed an overtime win when he broke off a 48-yard scamper to the end zone.
If Manning can’t throw the ball effectively, he should be able to rely on Anderson and Ronnie Hillman to set up second-and-shorts.
Brady didn’t have Edelman or Amendola for that game, while Gronkowski left the field in the fourth quarter. The Patriots offence is a different force with the trio in the lineup but Brady can’t excuse his 2-6 overall record at Mile High Stadium.
Manning may be a shadow of his former self, but Denver’s defence can be the Sheriff’s horse and ride him all the way to Super Bowl 50.