We’re down to the final four in the NFL. Here’s a first look at the 2016 AFC championship game, which features the top-seeded Denver Broncos (12-4) and the No. 2-seeded New England Patriots (12-4), who will meet at Mile High Sunday at 3 p.m. ET.
Brady vs. Manning, take 17: This will mark the 17th meeting between greats Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, and the fourth in the AFC championship game. Manning’s teams have won the last two conference title tilts with Brady’s Patriots, but Brady has still beat Manning in 11 of those 16 matchups and two of their four playoff meetings.
Home-field advantage: Brady might have had a better season than Manning, but the Broncos still beat New England in Denver this season with Brock Osweiler at quarterback. Had the Pats just put in some effort in their Week 17 loss to Miami, they might have home-field advantage here, which is huge considering how dominant that team’s been at Gillette Stadium. Instead, they’ll have to travel two time zones to face one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time in the mile-high elements. Brady has a 2-6 career record in Denver.
Don’t forget about the Ds: All of the talk this week will be about the future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, but neither Brady nor Manning had exceptional seasons. Sure, Brady was still generally stellar and got hot late last year, while Manning looks healthier than he’s been in a while, but Manning rightly pointed out following his team’s divisional playoff victory that the defense is carrying things for the Broncos. He’s right, and that sort of applies to the Patriots as well. In the divisional playoffs, the Broncos (who ranked first in football during the regular season) gave up just 16 points to one of the best offenses in football, while the Pats (who ranked in the top 10 in terms of both points and yards allowed) gave up just 13 points in 59 minutes against a Kansas City team that had been averaging 28.0 points per game on its 11-game winning streak. Denver and New England also ranked first and second in the league in terms of sacks and sack rate. The difference might be that the Broncos are a little more opportunistic and have a better run defense, at least on paper.
Yet New England is favored: Why? Well, the Patriots are healthier than they were when they last played New England, and Brady still has an edge over Manning. Denver’s receivers were a mess against Pittsburgh while Brady has benefited greatly from the return of Julian Edelman (plus, Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola are healthier). New England’s offense is just a lot more explosive, and Denver has actually been mortal at home with three Mile High losses in the last year. Still, the Patriots haven’t won a road playoff game since 2006, having lost twice on the road to Manning-led opponents in the last nine calendar years. So this should be close to a toss-up. I’m sticking with the home team. Broncos 20, Patriots 17