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Archrivals back to test Peyton Manning in possible final game

1. A MISSING WEAPON

The Broncos have more than enough weapons for Peyton Manning, but tight end Julius Thomas missed their first meeting with the Patriots because of a knee injury. The 6-5, 250-pound Thomas, who had 12 touchdowns and 788 yards in the regular season, could be a back-breaker, creating numerous mismatches.

2. ROLLING WITH BLOUNT

LeGarrette Blount wasn’t the Patriots’ featured back in their first meeting, getting only two carries for 13 yards. But he has started the last five games. In the last three, including the Patriots’ 43-22 thumping of the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional playoffs, Blount has run for 431 yards and eight touchdowns.

3. DENVER’s RESILIENT ‘D’

Injuries have made the Broncos’ defense a beleaguered bunch. But they’ve managed to hold four of their last five opponents under 260 total yards and held the San Diego Chargers to 45 net yards in the first half before their late rally in the divisional playoffs.

Pick: Broncos 38, Patriots 30

Updated: February 20, 2014 6:49AM



DENVER — Peyton Manning was passing out plenty of compliments this past week in the leadup to the AFC Championship Game. His top receivers were New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.

‘‘It’s safe to say he’ll go down as the greatest NFL coach of all time,’’ Manning said of Belichick.

‘‘There are many, many well-deserved accolades and adjectives to describe the way he’s played quarterback,’’ he added about Brady.

But the NFL’s dream matchup Sunday in Denver is more than Manning vs. Belichick’s defense or Manning vs. Brady. This is Manning vs. time and Manning vs. destiny.

He has had multiple neck surgeries, missed the entire 2011 season and turns 38 in March, and Sunday might be his last game, his last chance at a Super Bowl and his last opportunity to cement his legacy as one of the best quarterbacks ever.

Manning reportedly will have his neck examined after the season because of his contract. Although he’s signed with the Broncos through 2016, if his neck is found to be more at risk or damaged again, retirement becomes a real possibility.

It’s that finality that looms over Sunday’s game.

Manning has a chance to end a Hall of Fame career like his current boss, John Elway, did when he won the second of two Super Bowls for the Broncos in 1999. The narrative feels destined for a similar ending.

‘‘Just when you go through a significant injury and a major career change, you truly do go one year at a time, and you don’t look past what’s going on now because you are not sure what’s going to happen,’’ Manning said. ‘‘Tomorrow is not promised.’’

Standing in Manning’s way, as always, are Belichick and Brady, the stains on an otherwise-impeccable career. While Manning’s coaches and teams have changed over a 16-year career, Belichick and Brady have been the one enduring roadblock.

Manning has the numbers. This past season, he set single-season records for touchdown passes (55) and passing yards (5,477), while the Broncos scored an NFL-record 606 points. But Brady has three Super Bowl championships to Manning’s one. Manning is 4-10 against Brady (1-2 in the playoffs) and 6-11 against Belichick’s Patriots in his career (Manning has a .735 winning percentage against the rest of the league).

Cracking a Belichick-run defense has been his Mount Everest. On Nov. 24, the visiting Broncos took a 24-point against the Patriots, only to squander it in an awful second half and lose 34-31 in overtime.

Beating the Patriots always is significant for Manning, this time means more.

‘‘It is very rewarding when you put [in] a lot of hard work and it pays off with the opportunity to play in a game like this,’’ Manning said. ‘‘You don’t take [it] for granted, especially when you’ve been through an injury, been through a major change, and you’re in the home stretch of your career.’’

Email: ajahns@suntimes.com

Twitter: @adamjahns



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