There is just one more Sunday of football action until Super Bowl 50 and the top two seeds in each conference find themselves playing for a chance to play for the Lombardi Trophy on February 7th.
Starting with the AFC, here’s a prediction for this Sunday’s clash between the Broncos and Patriots.
New England over Denver
Despite an up-and-down season, the Broncos somehow claimed the top seed in the AFC on the last day of the regular season thanks in large part to a Dolphins’ upset of the Patriots.
Three teams ended the season at 12-4, but Denver beat the two others and now they have home-field when it matters most.
Despite being the lower seed, here’s why New England will win their second straight conference title and try for consecutive Super Bowl victories for the second time in 15 years.
Manning vs. Brady
This has been the head line to some historic clashes in recent years and Sunday may be the last one.
Although this rivalry has had some great moments when these two quarterbacks were lighting up the league, this particular one features two signal-callers that are trending in opposite directions.
Tom Brady did what Tom Brady does last week in the Patriots’ 27-20 win over the Chiefs at Foxboro–28 of 42, 302 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions.
In his last four playoff games, Brady is 4-0 with a completion percentage of 68, an average of 305 yards-per-game, 14 touchdowns, four interceptions, and a passer rating of 101.1.
Oh, and a Super Bowl ring.
Meanwhile, Peyton Manning has been a much different story, mostly because he was benched earlier this season because of injury and inefficient play. He reappeared in week 17 to help Denver claim the top seed in the conference and beat the Steelers last week in the divisional round to advance to this date with New England.
Manning threw 17 interceptions to just nine touchdowns in the regular season, and hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass since a November 8th loss to the Colts.
Since his last touchdown pass (a one-yard score to Owen Daniels), Manning has quarterbacked the Broncos on 28 total drives, resulting in just three touchdowns, seven field goals, six turnovers (five interceptions), and 12 punts.
On those 10 scoring drives (three TD, seven FG), Manning has averaged just 16.8 passing yards-per-possession.
At home this year, Manning has tossed for just one score compared to eight picks, Brady threw more touchdowns (3) than Manning at Sports Authority Field in Mile High this season in 83 fewer pass attempts (125 to 42).
You have to give the upper hand to Brady.
It was no secret that Brady was working with a limited cast in the two team’s previous meeting– a 30-24 Broncos’ victory on November 29th.
Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola were both inactive, leaving Brady to target guys like Asante Cleveland and Chris Harper, whom are both no longer on the team.
In the aforementioned meeting on Nov. 29th, it was Harper who muffed and lost a punt in the fourth quarter with New England leading by 14 points and getting the ball back. It gave the Broncos momentum as they would score 23 of the game’s next 26 points to get the win.
On top of that, Rob Gronkowski (the team’s leading receiver that day) left the game in over time with a knee injury.
It will be a different story this Sunday, however, with Amendola and Edelman back in action. Edelman snagged 10 passes for 100 yards in last Saturday’s win over Kansas City.
On top of having two of his favorite receivers back, Gronkowski will aim to continue his success scorching the Broncos.
In his last three games against Denver, Gronk has averaged seven receptions, 94.3 yards, and a touchdown.
Worth noting that Gronk was inactive in the Broncos’ last playoff victory over New England in the 2013 AFC Championship game.
Defending the run
The biggest part of New England’s over time loss to Denver back in November was the Broncos’ ability to pound the rock.
The Patriots allowed a season-high 179 rushing yards and three touchdowns–including CJ Anderson’s 48-yard walk-of scamper in over time.
Don’t expect New England and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to make the same mistakes twice.
The Pats were one of ten teams in the NFL to give up less than 100-yards-per-game on-the-ground this season.
Last week New England held the Chiefs’ two running backs (Charcandrick West and Knile Davis) to just 91 yards on 23 attempts and long of 17.
With Manning playing quarterback, expect the Patriots to stack the box without the threat of Peyton eluding the pocket, opposite of the situation in the November meeting when Brock Osweiler was the starter.
The last time Manning played against New England ended in a 43-21 Pats’ victory, with the Broncos rushing for only 43 yards.
Tom Brady was sacked 38 times this season, the third highest total of his illustrious career. However, he was virtually untouched against the Chiefs last week (just one quarterback hit, zero sacks), a defense that ranked 4th in total sacks during the regular season.
One big part of that is that Edelman and Amendola were back on-the-field for the first time since November. They were each successful in getting open off the line-of-scrimmage, allowing Brady to make his quick hits and avoid the pass rush.
On defense, New England ranked second in total sacks this season (trailing only Denver) and now will go after Manning, who is basically a standing target with little-to-no mobility.
I’ve failed to mention how Denver has the number one defense in the NFL, which is why the Broncos can and will keep this game close.
In the long run, however, Brady and his offense at full strength will outscore the Broncos’ offense that has sputtered all season with Manning at-the-helm.
Final Score: New England 27, Denver 16
There, you have it. That’s why New England will play in their seventh Super Bowl in the last 15 years.
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