Heading into the 2014 AFC Championship game, the Patriots no longer had Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, or Wes Welker. Julian Edelman had yet to flourish as the player he is today. They were a team that exceeded analysts expectations that season. Brady and Belichick had yet again proved their greatness by carrying an average team even that far.
The Broncos would go on to beat the Patriots 26-16. It was a disappointing New England result but Denver was the better team that year.
Peyton went 34-43, 400 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT, and a QBR of 86.8. Brady went 24/38, 277 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, for a QBR of 58.9.
Peyton had Demaryius Thomas (7 catches, 134 yards, 1 TD), Julius Thomas (8 catches, 85 yards), Eric Decker (5 catches, 73 yards), and Wes Welker (4 catches, 38 yards) as his top targets in the game.
Brady had Julian Edelman (10 catches, 89 yards, 1 TD), Shane Vereen (5 catches, 59 yards), Austin Collie (4 catches, 57 yards), Michael Hoomanawanaui (2 catches, 33 yards), and Aaron Dobson (2 catches, 33 yards).
The Broncos would go onto the Super Bowl and were throttled 43-8 by the Seahawks. They were absolutely destroyed by Seattle right from the first snap of the game. Manning would fail again to capture his second ring and remain three Super Bowl wins behind Brady.
Fast forward to this November, it had looked like Peyton Manning would never even play another game in a Broncos uniform. He looked like he had lost it physically. His body and arm strength was gone; letting down the quarterbacks incredible football mind and experience. In an SB Nation vote, 26,836 voters emphatically declared Peyton Manning was “done.” 59% of the football watching nation said his career was over. Peyton Manning had started the week 10 game against the Chiefs and was pulled from the game. One of the best quarterbacks to ever play went out and completely shat the bed. He went 5/20 0 TD, and 4 INT. Brock Osweiler would take over and remain the starter until week 17.
Peyton would get the starting job back in the playoffs and take on Pittsburgh. He would go on to barely defeat an injured, handicapped Steelers team. With their QB playing on torn ligaments in his shoulder, top offensive player out injured, and top two running-backs the Steelers almost pulled off the ultimate upset at Mile High. With about 10 minutes remaining in the 4th quarter, backup running back Fitzgerald Toussaint fumbled at the Denver 31 yard line. At that time in the game Pittsburgh was leading the Broncos 13-12 and heading toward an even bigger lead and in the least a field goal. Manning would go on to post an average stat line of 21/37, 222 yards, 0 TD, and 0 INT. The MVP of the game was Brandon McManus who nailed 5 field goals. The only offensive touchdown for the Broncos came on the ground; a 1 yard CJ Anderson rush.
The Patriots lost once already this season in Denver. With many injured Patriots, Brady still had the team ahead 21-7 early on in the game until practice squad player Chris Harper muffed a punt that gave the Broncos significant momentum. The Patriots would blow the lead and lose 30-24 in overtime for the first loss in the 2015 regular season. The quarterback leading the Broncos was not even Manning; it was Brock Osweiler. The young quarterback went 23/42, 270 yards, 1 TD, and 1 INT. Brady went 23/42, 280 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT. 3 of the Denver touchdowns came on the ground. CJ Anderson had 15 rushes for 113 yards and 2 TDs. Ronnie Hillman scored one of his own and put up 59 yards on 14 rushes.
This chapter of Brady-Manning is completely incomparable to the 2014 game in Denver. Brady has healthy offensive targets. Julian Edelman won’t be a one man show alongside mediocre talent like Austin Collie, Aaron Dobson, And Michael Hoomanawanaui. This time the Patriots have Rob Gronkowski and Scott Chandler at tight end. At wide receiver, they feature Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. The secondary targets might be better than what Brady had to deal with in 2014. Brandon LaFell, Keshawn Martin, and James White out of the backfield might be more dangerous than Collie, Hoomanawanaui, and Dobson combined. The Broncos defense is certainly an impressive bunch that should be feared but they have a full plate to deal with against this Patriots offense. When this group was at full speed the media was discussing another 2007 unbeaten season Patriots season. Gronkowski, Edelman, and Amendola are all back and producing at a high level. Confidence has returned as the Patriots come off beating the red hot Chiefs that had won 11 games in a row previous to facing the Pats in their divisional match-up.
Incredibly enough Tom Brady has more touchdown passes than Peyton Manning has at Mile High Stadium this year. Brady has 3 while Peyton has 1. His last touchdown at home was week 4 against the the Vikings. Peyton Manning has 17 interceptions while only throwing 9 touchdowns in his 2015 campaign. Brady also has the advantage of already seeing the Broncos defense once this year while Manning sat on the bench watching Osweiler captain the offense.
Can the Broncos score fast and can Peyton Manning lead a team downfield late if the Patriots jump to a lead? If Peyton’s 2015 campaign is any evidence that is certainly nothing to bet on. Continuity at the quarterback position is important and it is something that Denver has lacked this season. The only lethal downfield threat that remains on the Broncos roster from the 2014 AFC Championship is Demaryius Thomas. Replacing the likes of Eric Decker, Julius Thomas, and Wes Welker are players like Emmanuel Sanders, Owen Daniels, Cody Latimer, and Andre Caldwell. Certainly not the names that blew you away when New England faced Denver in 2014. The Broncos are a team that will only go as far as their defense will carry them. The offensive line for the Patriots is certainly a concern but with Brady getting the ball out in an average of 1.94 seconds in 43 drop backs against the Chiefs last week will they even have time to get to Brady?
Brady is 11-5 all time against Manning. They are 2-2 against each other in the postseason. Brady won the first two matchups in 2004, 2005 against Manning by a score of 44-17. Manning has won the last two in 2007, 2014 by a score of 64-50. Both quarterbacks won against each other in their home stadiums and have never beaten the other on the road. Brady is 8-2 at home against Manning, while Peyton is 3-3 in his own stadium. Since 2010, Brady is 4-1 against Manning with his only loss in the aforementioned 2014 AFC Championship matchup.
Whether the game is played in Mile High or in Foxboro, everything points to a Patriots victory in the 2015 AFC Championship. The Broncos struggled against a much less potent Steelers offense and defense just this past week. It took a 3rd/4th string running-back fumble in the 4th quarter to breathe life back into the Broncos playoff run. Brady will be coming into town with a potent offense, and a widely underrated defense on his side. Peyton has only played one full football game since week 10 and did not face the Patriots when Denver beat them. He has less physical talent than ever and will have to rely on his brain and running game to defeat the Patriots. Belichick knows this is a fact and if the Patriots can key into the Denver running game and make Manning throw downfield they hold a significant advantage over the Broncos. Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas are certainly better threats than anything that the Chiefs offered. The Patriots secondary is key to a Patriots victory. Inside of the box the Patriots have a defensive front capable of putting the breaks on the Broncos running game. Without the threat of mobility, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich will have more freedom on the edge without the fear of Manning scrambling. Alex Smith had the ability to take off on the ground this past week; Peyton does not. Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, and Jamie Collins are formidable linebackers that can stop Anderson and Hillman. In the last Brady-Manning matchup, Welker deliberately took Aqib Talib out of the game with a dirty hit that weakened their secondary. This left Devin McCourty alone in the secondary with weak players like Alfonzo Dennard, Marquice Cole, Steve Gregory, Kyle Arrington. Duron Harmon was only a rookie at the time. With McCourty as their field marshal, Malcolm Butler, Duron Harmon, and Logan Ryan form a stronger secondary than the Patriots had in 2014.
While the Patriots may not have the same firepower as the Denver defense, Brady has potent weapons that is capable of putting big points up on the board. Peyton’s physical prowess has diminished and while he certainly has a few downfield threats they do not match the offensive options that New England has on their offense. If the New England defense can put pressure on Manning while stopping the run there is definitely no strong faith that Manning has ability to win this game with his arm.
If Manning can find a way to score touchdowns and lead his team to victory it will be one of the greatest comebacks by any player in NFL history. Peyton would go from being benched to leading his team to the Super Bowl with a win over his long time nemesis Tom Brady. The Broncos would have the chance to go to Santa Clara and put an exclamation point on Manning’s career by capturing his second Super Bowl. However, he would still be two rings behind Brady.
But I believe Brady will put the icing on the final chapter of one of the greatest rivalries of all time with the first playoff road victory by either quarterback in their great rivalry. The Broncos may have some success on the ground; but with their passing game they will not be able to put up as many points as Brady. The turnover battle will be won by the Patriots by making Manning uncomfortable in the pocket and forcing ill-advised throws downfield. Brady would head to his 7th Super Bowl and have the chance to win his 5th ring. A 5th ring for Brady would break the record for most all-time by an individual quarterback. He would have the chance to match Terry Bradshaw’s record of winning back-to-back Super Bowls twice. Belichick would put himself ahead of Don Shula with 7 Super Bowl appearances in his coaching career. Shula did manage to capture the undefeated season that escaped Belichick. However, Bill is 4-2 in Super Bowl appearances while Shula finished 2-4. In what will almost certainly be the last postseason Brady-Manning battle, Tom will improve to 12-5 all time against Peyton. Brady will improve to a 70% winning percentage against what is widely considered to be the other greatest quarterback of this generation; Ultimately proving that he is in-fact the greatest in his era and even maybe the absolute greatest in NFL history.