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2014 NFL Playoffs: 6 Key Matchups in Denver Broncos vs. New England Patriots

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Denver Broncos vs. New England Patriots: 6 Key Matchups

Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

We simply could not have asked for a better matchup in the AFC Championship Game. For me, it has felt like it would be these two teams all season long. This Sunday, we will all have the privilege to watch a game that we could easily remember for the rest of our lives when the New England Patriots travel to Mile-High Stadium to take on the Denver Broncos, with a trip to Super Bowl XLVIII on the line.

This is the third straight season that New England will be in the AFC Championship Game. As you all know, head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady have teamed up for three Super Bowl titles in five appearances . This team is probably the closest thing that we will see to a dynasty since free agency is now prevalent in the game.

Many, myself included, feel like this is the most impressive run that Belichick and Brady have put together. This team has dealt with a ton of adversity this season. From the Aaron Hernandez saga that began in training camp, to losing many incredibly key players to injury throughout the year, this team has been through a lot. That being said, they are still standing tall with only one team standing in front of them, and another Super Bowl appearance.

The Broncos have been the talk of the league since the first game of the season when quarterback Peyton Manning threw for 462 yards and seven touchdowns against the defending champion Baltimore Ravens. Manning had a historical season throwing for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns. His 55 TD passes record is the most all-time, breaking Brady's record of 50 set in 2007.

The two teams met up back in Week 12. The Patriots escaped that game with a 34-31 victory in overtime. The key play in that game came late in overtime, when a punt hit a Denver player trying to get away from the ball. It was then recovered by New England special teams ace Nate Ebner, and the Patriots were able to knock in a short field goal for the victory.

If not for that semi-fluky play, the game probably would have ended in a tie. Regardless, none of that matters now, as both teams are very different now.

Let's be honest, we all knew it would come down to this. These two were the obvious best teams in the AFC. This should be a very competitive contest that could easily come down to the last possession. The quarterbacks are the stars, but their will be incredible matchups all across the field. Here are the six most important matchups for this Sunday's AFC Championship Game.

Daniel is a writer for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @D_Schmelzer, "Like" his Page on Facebook and add him to your network on Google.

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6. Broncos TE Julius Thomas vs. Patriots LB Jamie Collins

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Manning has weapons to throw to all over the field, and one that seemingly came out of nowhere this season is tight end Julius Thomas. He is a big, physical and athletic player that has great hands. Thomas has been a key target for Manning all season long, hauling in 65 receptions for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns in 14 regular season games, and six receptions for 76 yards last week against the San Diego Chargers. Thomas made a huge play late in the game last week when he caught a Manning pass on the sideline to pick up a first down on 3rd-and-17. The Broncos were then able to run the rest of the clock and pick up the win.

Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins is a second round rookie that has been forced in to action late this season and has performed very nicely. Collins is a very athletic and long player that is extremely versatile. Last week against the Indianapolis Colts was his coming out party; Collins had a sack, a late interception and played incredible pass defense on tight end Coby Fleener.

Thomas and Collins match up very well athletically, and it should be a great battle to watch all game long.

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5. Broncos WR Wes Welker vs. Patriots CBs Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan

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One of the most interesting story in this game is the play of long-time Patriot and current Bronco, Wes Welker. Back in their November matchup, Welker was mostly defended by CB Kyle Arrington, who held him to four receptions for 31 yards.

Arrington seemed to have an upper hand on Welker, and apparently the two had were matched up a ton in practice over the years. Arrington has had his struggles recently, and rookie Logan Ryan has stepped in and performed nicely.

It is hard to predict which player will be defending Welker, but I think the Patriots will try Arrington first. Regardless this battle in the slot will be something to keep an eye on.

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4. Patriots Run Game vs. Broncos Run Defense

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Normally, the Patriots run a pass-happy offense led by Brady. Because of their lack of receiving options, the team has really started to lean on the run game late this season. Last week against the Colts, the Patriots ran the ball 46 times, 234 yards and six touchdowns. Brady only threw the ball 25 times. They are using a running back by committee with Stevan Ridely and Shane Vereen getting some work, but the horse has been a resurgent LeGarrette Blount.

Blount bulldozed his way to 166 yards on 24 carries and four touchdowns last Saturday. While Blount and the rest of the backs are doing a great job, the offensive line has been incredible. Led by guard Logan Mankins and tackle Nate Solder, the New England line has been opening up huge holes in the run game.

The Denver run defense has been pretty good this season, and they were really able to shut down the Chargers run attack last week. The Patriots will look to get the running game going, and the must stop it if they expect to win. This matchup will be a huge key to victory.

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3. Patriots Pass Rush vs. Broncos Offensive Line

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

The best way to get to Manning is to put pressure on him. The Broncos' offensive line did a pretty good job of protecting their quarterback last week, but for most of the season, Manning has not had much time to throw.

The Patriots do not have many great pass rushers, but they are usually able to get some pressure on the quarterback. Chandler Jones is their best pure pass rusher, and he must play well in this one.

This is a bit of a weak spot for both teams, but it is a huge key. I expect Belichick to try some exotic blitzes to try and confuse Manning at the line of scrimmage.

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2. Patriots CB Aqib Talib vs. Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas

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Manning will try and get the ball to Demaryius Thomas. He is the most talented receiver that the Broncos have, and it is not even close. Thomas has a great combination of power and speed that allows him to basically dominate any corner that he goes against.

Aqib Talib has been incredible this season. The Patriots usually line him up against he opposing team's best receiver, and more often than not, he shuts them down. Talib does not have the pure speed of Thomas, but he is a very strong and smart player. This will be a physical battle all game long.

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1. Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning

Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

They will not be on the field together at all on Sunday, but make no mistake, the matchup between the two quarterbacks is the most important part of this game. They are calling this one Brady-Manning XV, as two giants in the history of the game will square off for the right to play for the Lombardi Trophy.

You really cannot go wrong when choosing between these two QBs. Manning is one of the greatest regular season QBs of all-time, but he has struggled in the playoffs with a career record of 10-11. Brady has put up great numbers, but Manning certainly has him beat in that department. On the other hand, Brady's playoff record is an incredible 18-7, with his 18 wins being the most by a QB in the history of the game.

In their 14 previous matchups, Brady has a record of 10-4, including 2-1 in the playoffs. Make no mistake about it, Brady has had Manning's number in the past. To be fair, Brady has usually had the better team surrounding him. This time, I think it is fairly obvious that Manning has the stronger supporting cast.

Regardless of what happens this Sunday, it is safe to say that we, as football fans, are in for a huge treat. These two will go down as two of the best to ever play the game. It does not get any better than this.