AFC title game primer: Brady-Manning again, but this time it's different
No. 2 New England at No. 1 Denver (3:05 p.m. E.T., CBS)
How They Match Up:
Welcome to what you may have thought you'd never see again: yet another big game between the teams quarterbacked by Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, with a Super Bowl appearance as the prize for the winning team. It will be the 17th time these great quarterbacks have faced off (yes, we know they don't really face off, but narrative narrative narrative!), and with Manning's declining play and recent injury history, you'd be forgiven for thinking that number 17 was a fever dream. But here we are, after the Patriots beat the Chiefs on Saturday and the Broncos snuck by the Steelers on Sunday afternoon.
That's most of what you're going to hear and read about for the next week, but the interesting sub-story here is that the teams buttressing Brady and Manning are different than most of their predecessors. The 2015 Broncos probably have the best overall defense of any team with Manning as its quarterback, and the 2015 Patriots have installed several defensive players who, at their best, hearken back to the great Bill Belichick defenses of the early 2000s.
When the Broncos are on defense, they blitz aggressively at times, but they don't really need to all that often. DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller give defensive coordinator Wade Phillips fierce pressure off the edge, and they're perfect fits in Phillips's one-gap 3-4 base defense. When it's time for nickel defense, Denver is able to field the best three-man group of cornerbacks in the NFL, with Aqib Talib and Chris Harris on the outside, and Bradley Roby in the slot. As he's done in many stops throughout his career, Phillips has proven able to perfectly mix pressure and coverage. It's a stern test for Brady, though he does have a fuller cast of receivers coming into this game than he's had before.
Of course, the question for the Broncos comes on offense—actually, several questions. Denver's offensive line has been porous at times, their receivers have underperformed in fits and starts, and the run game has been inconsistent at best. When Manning was set aside in favor of Brock Osweiler from mid-November through early January, it followed a period of sub-par play not seen from him since his rookie year—he overthrew and underthrew receivers, he made some truly baffling reads, and it was very clear that his mind was telling him to do things that his arm simply wouldn't do. That was still true at times in the divisional win over Pittsburgh, though Manning's receivers had a pretty epic drop-fest, especially in the first half. There's also the potential for schism between the shotgun-based offense Manning prefers and the more under-center, play- and boot-action system head coach Gary Kubiak has had for years. Reconciling those differences will be crucial if the Broncos are to take care of the Pats and head back to the Super Bowl.
What is the Patriots system? They don't really have one. Belichick has formation preferences to a small degree, but there's no coach in NFL history who's varied his playbooks so often over the years—and over the weeks, depending on every specific opponent. As Brady's arm has declined, New England's offense has more of a short passing rhythm to it, and neither quarterback has the touch with the deep ball that he used to. Brady completed 24 of 67 deep balls for 833 yards, three touchdowns and two picks in the 2015 regular season, and Manning's deep numbers were really bad, especially from an accuracy perspective—just 10 balls completed on 42 deep attempts for 438 yards, three touchdowns and three picks. The best bet for the Broncos to advance is for the run game to show a modicum of consistency, let Manning get into a rhythm with the quick passing game and play-action, and control the clock. If that sounds like a recipe for a game-manager... well, it is. Both of these franchises need to realize that they are teams built to support their quarterbacks at this point, as opposed to the other way around.
What you will see from the Patriots on offense, whether Brady's receivers are healthy or not, is a diverse passing game with multiple option routes and the reliance on Rob Gronkowski to make big plays at his uncoverable best. Julian Edelman has become Brady's security blanket in the short to intermediate passing game, as he is so fluent with the dizzying number of variations those route concepts can bring. Watch out for running back James White as an ancillary concern in the passing game, as well.
The last meeting:
These two teams faced off on November 29, which meant that it was the far less buzzy Brady-Osweiler story. However, Denver won that game 30–24 in overtime, as running back C.J. Anderson put up a 48-yard win to decide things. The Broncos gained 179 yards on the ground on 31 carries, and both Brady and Osweiler completed 23 of 42 passes. The difference there was that Brady threw for three touchdowns, while Osweiler threw for one touchdown and also threw a pick. Denver receiver Emmanuel Sanders was another star, working through New England's coverage for six catches and 113 yards. That was the game which ended New England's perfect record on the season, and if the Pats want revenge, they'll have to limit that run game—especially if Manning gets erratic and Osweiler comes in. Generally, the Broncos have been more comfortable in Kubiak's zone-running system with Osweiler under center. Also of note: Brady didn't have his full cadre of receivers: Edelman and Danny Amendola were both out then, and they're not now. Gronkowski was hurt late in the fourth quarter, and he should be up for the rematch. You could balance the scales, however, with the fact that the Broncos' number-one receiver Demaryius Thomas failed to catch any of the first 11 passes thrown his way, and ended his day with one catch on 13 targets for 36 yards. Denver overcame a 21–7 fourth-quarter deficit.