Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) calls an audible at the line of scrimmage against the San Diego Chargers in the first quarter of an NFL AFC division playoff football game, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014, in Denver. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
The USA TODAY gives five first impressions on the AFC Championship matchup between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots:
1. The Broncos’ record-breaking offense wasn’t at its best in Sunday’s win against the San Diego Chargers, from TE Julius Thomas’ questionable fumble to the ball that ricocheted off WR Eric Decker’s chest for an interception to WR Wes Welker’s red-zone drop. But mistakes aside, QB Peyton Manning has weapons to spare and is a wizard at adjusting to defensive looks before the snap. He’ll see plenty from Bill Belichick’s Patriots, who quietly ranked seventh in pass-rush efficiency and are as game plan-specific as anybody.
2. The Patriots defense is decimated up front, having lost NT Vince Wilfork, DT Tommy Kelly, LB Jerod Mayo and LB Brandon Spikes to season-ending injuries on the way to a No.30 ranking in run defense. That creates a tough situation if an opponent gets a lead and in position to churn clock, as Denver did effectively in spots against the Chargers, averaging 4.06 yards on 33 non-kneeldown carries. Best way to cover up that weakness: get a lead, force the Broncos to go to the air and turn loose the dogs.
3. The Broncos defense had a key injury of its own last month, losing pass-rushing OLB Von Miller to knee reconstruction surgery. But they owned the line of scrimmage against the Chargers’ short-handed offensive line. Of greater concern might be a Denver secondary that lost CB Chris Harris to a knee/ankle injury and watched his replacement, veteran CB Quentin Jammer, get toasted by Philip Rivers and his receivers during the late rally. The Broncos aren’t strong at safety either.
4. Patriots QB Tom Brady has done some of his finest work this season, considering to whom he has been throwing. He was 24-of-34 for 263 yards and three TDs in the second half as New England rallied from a 24-point deficit to stun the Broncos in November. RB LeGarrette Blount did the heavy lifting in Saturday’s win against the Indianapolis Colts, though. The more the Patriots stay on schedule, the more Bradyinside.
5. This has the makings of another classic, even if neither team is as complete as those in the NFC title game. Manning is 37, Brady 36. Every opportunity is precious at this point. In 14 head-to-head meetings with Manning’s Colts and Broncos teams, Brady and the Patriots have won 10. And it’s hard not to feel the pressure is heavier on Manning, who will be on his home field and knows all his personal records can’t erase the mark that matters in the playoffs: 10-11.