New England (13-4) at Denver (13-4)
When: Sunday, January 24th 2016
Where: Sports Authority Field, Denver, CO
Time: 3:05 ET | TV: CBS
Both the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos are in familiar territory when they square off in the AFC Championship Game and a trip to Super Bowl 50. Tom Brady can extend and NFL record with his 23rd postseason victory on Sunday and his 12th win over Peyton Manning. The Patriots can also earn a record ninth trip to the Super Bowl. They are currently tied with Pittsburgh and Dallas with eight. The second-seeded Patriots lost at Denver in overtime in Week 12 and dropped their final two regular-season games to give the Broncos home-field advantage, but they regrouped last week and beat Kansas City 27-20 in the Divisional round. Wide receiver Julian Edelman, who missed the Week 12 game in Denver, returned from a two-month injury absence and promptly caught 10 passes for 100 yards to spark the Pats offense. Tight end Rob Gronkowski shook off knee and back ailments to grab seven passes for 83 yards and a pair of touchdowns. New England’s running game was non-existent last week getting only seven carries from their running backs. Brady threw for 280 yards and three touchdowns in the November game but was missing both Edelman and Danny Amendola (2 catches, 18 yards last week) while Gronkowski was carted off the field with just under three minutes to play in regulation. New England’s biggest issue in their loss to Denver earlier was a failure to convert third-downs (2-of-13). With a healthy receiving corps, that percentage is sure to go up on Sunday. The Patriots were second in the NFL with 49 sacks but lost starting linebacker Jerod Mayo to a shoulder injury in Week 17.
This might be Peyton Manning’s last chance to get to a Super Bowl and his best chance to beat Brady for just the sixth time in 17 meetings. Manning got the better of Brady the last time they met which was two years ago in this same championship game where Manning threw for 400 yards in the victory. There’s no hiding his awful stats this year (9 TDs, 17 INT), but he’s hungry for another trip to the big game and he knows this might be it. He was 21-of-37 for 222 yards in Denver’s 23-16 Playoff win over Pittsburgh last week, but failed to engineer a touchdown drive until there were 3:00 minutes to go in the game. C.J. Anderson has helped Manning out by rushing for 240 yards over his last three games while averaging 6.2 yards per carry. Manning still has some good targets to throw to including Anderson out of the backfield. Emmanuel Sanders had five receptions for 85 yards last week and nine catches for 113 yards in the first matchup with New England. Demaryius Thomas had just four catches last week, but ended the regular season with 5 catches for 117 yards in Week 17 and three touchdowns in the final three weeks. Denver’s defense has been dominant all season ranking tops in the NFL in sacks (52), passing yards allowed (199.6), and total yards against (283.1). Denver, which is 7-2 at home in AFC title games, can tie the Patriots, Steelers and Cowboys for most Super Bowl appearances with a victory Sunday.
Its hard to go against Brady in this situation, but the Denver defense was built to win games like this. Anderson’s running game has been a blessing recently to take pressure off the aging Manning. The Broncos led the league in sacks and should win the battle against an average New England offensive line. This could be an instant classic kind of game, but anytime you can get the number one defense in football getting points at home with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, you take it.
Pick: Broncos +3