The 49ers-Seahawks NFC Championship game will feature two of the NFL’s young guns at quarterback, but the AFC Championship will pit two of the game’s best ever at the position, as Tom Brady and the Patriots will travel to Denver to face Peyton Manning and the Broncos.
It is a matchup of the conference’s top two seeds, as the Broncos finished the regular season 13-3, while New England was 12-4. One of Denver’s losses, however, came to the Patriots Nov. 24, when the Patriots roared back from a 24-0 halftime deficit on a bitterly cold evening and had a Broncos overtime miscue work in their favor to pull off a 34-31 win.
After dispatching the Colts Saturday night, Bill Belichick and the Patriots were glued to their televisions like most NFL fans Sunday to see whether they would be headed to Denver or staying home to host the Chargers.
But the Broncos hung on for a 24-17 win over a San Diego team that got hot toward the end of the season and made a second-half charge Sunday afternoon.
In a conference call before Sunday’s kickoff, Belichick said he would be watching the game, and that members of his staff already had done work on both the possible opponents.
“We’ve already broken down the Denver and San Diego games to this point, their last sequence of games, the ones we think are most relevant, for our preparations,” he said. “And we’ll start putting the pen to the paper and summarizing what we’ve seen and getting the scouting report ready and maybe putting together some game-plan ideas.
“We’ll definitely watch the game. I’ll watch it. One good thing is that you get to sit there and watch Denver play San Diego and watch both teams go; those are two good teams right there. Then once it’s over, obviously we’ll put one of them in the file for next year and use the other one, we’ll get back to work on the other one.”
This will be the 15th Brady-Manning matchup, fourth in the playoffs. Brady holds a 10-4 lead after the stunner in November.
Of course, the first 12 of those games came when Manning was the face of the Colts, not the Broncos. After missing the 2011 season because of neck surgery, Manning was released by Indianapolis, and ultimately signed with Denver.
He made an immediate impact, as the Broncos were the top seed last year, as well. But they were upset by the Ravens in the divisional round, and it went down as yet another playoff failure for Manning, who for all of his regular-season success is just 10-11 in the postseason, including eight years when his team lost its first playoff game.
Because of that, and because the Broncos had the highest-scoring offense in league history this season and have a solid defense, the pressure is on Denver to win far more than it is on New England, which has gotten this far despite a plethora of injuries to key players, as well as a few off-field problems.
This will be the first time Brady and Manning have met in the playoffs since the 2006 AFC title game, which Manning’s Colts came from behind to win, going on to claim the Super Bowl two weeks later.
That game, played at the now-demolished RCA Dome, also marked the Patriots’ last road playoff game.
Though the Patriots did play the Broncos this season and haven’t played the Chargers since 2011, Belichick didn’t see any advantage either way, all he saw was the challenge and opportunity of the conference championship game.
“We played well enough [Saturday] night to be able to play next week,” he said. “So whoever we play, we’re playing the other best team in the AFC. We’re going to have to play well. We’re going to have to play better than we played [Saturday] night. The competition is going to get stiffer.
“I think we’ve all seen in the playoffs that it’s really about that game, that matchup, that day. Whatever happened during the regular season or some other year or some other time is really not that significant. What it’s about is how things go on that particular day, just being at our best on the biggest game of the year.
“All of us players, coaches, making good decisions, good execution, good communication, playing good situational football, playing good down-after-down consistent football — that will be the challenge this week.”