The Pittsburgh Steelers might have beaten the Denver Broncos last week if top receiver Antonio Brown and starting running back DeAngelo Williams were healthy and/or if backup running back Fitzgerald Toussaint didn't commit a deadly late-game fumble.
The Kansas City Chiefs might have upset the Patriots in New England last week if Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and/or former K.C. offensive coordinator Doug Pederson (since hired as Eagles head coach) understood what clock management means.
So we could have had a Steelers-Chiefs AFC title game, and that would have been OK. But unless you are a fan of one of those teams, let's all be honest here and admit we wanted to see the Broncos and Patriots battle for a spot in Super Bowl 50 in what should be the final game ever between future Hall of Famers Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, maybe the two best quarterbacks in league history. Manning certainly is the best in regular-season history with his five MVPs and with just about every career record. But Manning has only the one Super Bowl title and is 12-13 in his playoff career.
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Brady may go down as the best overall QB with his two MVPs and four Super Bowl rings. One more title would break a tie with Joe Montana, Brady's childhood idol, and Terry Bradshaw for the most by a quarterback. Brady already has the most playoff wins in history with 22.
It's the 17th meeting between these two, with Brady holding an 11-5 advantage. While Brady is still playing at a high level and certainly will be back next season, there's almost no chance Manning will be -- and I doubt the Broncos even would want that.
Patriots at Broncos Betting Story Lines
If history holds, the Broncos will win here as the home team has won all four playoff meetings between these two. Manning is on a two-game winning streak in that regard. His Colts beat Brady's Patriots in the 2006 AFC Championship Game in Indianapolis and Manning led the Broncos to a win over the Patriots in the 2013 AFC title game in Denver. Sunday's game will feature the most playoff starts among opposing players at any position in NFL history (55). Brady has 30 in his career, while Manning has 25. They will also set the record for the oldest combined age of the QBs in a playoff game in NFL history, with Manning nearly 40 and Brady about 38.5.
These two weren't close in the regular season. Brady probably finishes third in the MVP voting behind Cam Newton and Carson Palmer. Brady was third in the league in passing yards at 4,770 and led with 36 touchdowns against just seven picks, the top TD:INT ratio in the NFL among full-time starters. Manning had his worst season, completing only 59.8 percent of his passes for nine TDs and 17 picks, the worst TD:INT ratio in the league. He was second in the NFL in picks despite playing only nine-plus games due to a foot injury. Manning's arm strength is pretty much gone now. And he barely can move around. So the Denver offensive line must play fantastic Sunday to keep Manning clean.
Injury-wise, the Broncos have lost linebacker Jerod Mayo to season-ending injured reserve. He's the heart and soul of the defense from a leadership perspective, but it's not a huge deal otherwise as Mayo had been demoted to a reserve role this season. Top linebacker Jamie Collins and defensive end Chandler Jones (team-leading 12.5 sacks) both left the Chiefs win with injuries, but both will play. Denver has lost top return man Omar Bolden to season-ending IR. He tore a ligament early last week against the Steelers. The bigger injury is to No. 1 cornerback Chris Harris, who has battled a shoulder injury for a few weeks. He was burned a bit early last week and eventually relegated to a nickel role. It likely would be Harris who would get the call on Brady's third-down security blanket, receiver Julius Edelman.
These teams met Week 11 in Denver, with the Patriots on a short week off a Monday night game. The Broncos handed New England its first loss of the year, 30-24 in OT on a snowy day. Manning was out then, with Brock Osweiler leading a fourth-quarter comeback from 21-7 down. He hit Andre Caldwell on a 4-yard TD pass with 1:22 left for a 24-21 lead, but Brady led a drive for a tying Stephen Gostkowski 47-yard field goal as time expired. Denver took possession first in OT and C.J. Anderson went 48 yards on a sweep for a score on 3rd-and-1 to end it. Brady threw for 280 yards and three scores but was sacked three times. The Pats ran the ball just 16 times for 39 yards. Neither Danny Amendola nor Edelman played that day. Rob Gronkowski had six catches for 88 yards and a score.
Patriots at Broncos Betting Odds and Trends
At 5Dimes , New England is a 3-point favorite (-115) with a total of 44.5. On the moneyline, the Patriots are -160 and Broncos +140. On the alternate lines, the Pats are -4 (+118), -3.5 (+110), -2.5 (-140) and -2 (-145). New England is 8-7-2 against the spread this season (3-5 on road) and 10-7 "over/under" (5-3 on road). Denver is 8-8-1 ATS (3-5-1 at home) and 6-10-1 O/U (2-6-1 at home).
New England has covered one of its past five after a win. The Patriots are 1-5 ATS in their past six road games overall and 1-5 ATS in their past six AFC title games. The Broncos have covered one of their past seven playoff games. They are 0-3-1 ATS in their past four at home overall. The over is 4-0 in the Pats' past four playoff games. It is 5-1 in New England's past six road games vs. teams with a winning home record. The under is 5-1 in Denver's past six at home vs. teams with a winning road record. The under is 4-1 in the Broncos' past five playoff games. The home team is 6-0 ATS in the past six meetings. The over is 6-1 in the past seven.
AFC Championship Game Expert Picks: Patriots at Broncos Betting Predictions
It will be cold in Denver but not crazy so. There could be some rain/snow showers. The Mile High City hasn't been kind to Brady, who is 2-6 in his career there and 0-2 in the playoffs. I doubt the Patriots can run the ball at all on that No. 1 Denver defense. Doubt they even try much. This really all comes down to what Manning has left. I say he can win this on his smarts. I'll take 3.5 points (that's the line at some books) and go under the total. .
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Read more articles by Alan Matthews
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