The NFL prides itself on having parity within the league. However, over the past three seasons, a Wild-Card team has emerged victorious in the Super Bowl. We all remember Joe Flacco‘s improbable run through the playoffs where he defeated Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in consecutive weeks. The 2011 Super Bowl champs were none other than the 9-7 New York Giants who limped into the postseason but ripped off impressive wins over the heavy favorite Green Bay Packers before defeating the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl for the second time in five years. In 2010, Aaron Rodgers officially arrived on the scene as the Packers won three consecutive road games in the playoffs before being crowned champs, giving birth to the infamous “discount double-check.”
This year is different. Throw parity out of the window. The conference championship round will be a throwback to the days when the top seeds squared off against one other. Each team left in the playoffs has at least 12 wins on their resume for the season. Both match-ups consist of rivalries that will be renewed with a chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy on the line. We take an in-depth look at the AFC Championship, which features the greatest QB rivalry of this generation.
AFC Championship: New England Patriots at Denver Broncos
Analysis: This game will also be known as Brady vs. Manning XV. These two legends have faced off against each other 14 times in the past with Brady holding a decisive 10-4 advantage (2-1 in postseason play). Brady is trying to reach the Super Bowl for an unprecedented sixth time, which would be the most in NFL history. His 18 playoff victories are already the most all time for a QB. Manning, on the other hand, is playing to save his reputation. He is considered one of the greatest chokers in playoff history, posting a putrid 10-11 record over his 16-year career. Another loss to Brady in a big game situation would end the debate of which QB reigns supreme.
Key to Success for New England: Bill Belichick has once again re-invented the New England offense. After Rob Gronkowski was lost late in the season by suffering an ACL injury, Belichick shifted the offense to a run-oriented attack. The combination of LaGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley has provided the Patriots with a powerful one-two punch. In last week’s divisional playoff, the tandem combined for more than 200 yards rushing with Blount averaging a whopping 6.9 YPC. However, with the injury to Denver’s starting CB Chris Harris last week against the San Diego Chargers, the pass defense has become susceptible to the deep ball. Backup CB Quentin Jammer was almost useless in his relief role for Harris, and he will likely get the start this weekend. Look for the Patriots to use the running game in order to set up the play-action pass and exploit the mismatches in the secondary.
Key to Success for Denver: Even with the success of Knowshon Moreno in the running game this season, the buck starts and stops with Manning. Manning had a regular season for the ages by shattering the record books. He threw for a record 55 touchdown passes along with 5,467 passing yards. Although the New England defense only ranked 21st against the rush during the regular season, Denver will need to keep their identity of moving the ball through the air. When these teams met earlier this season, the Patriots’ defense regularly rushed four lineman and dropped seven into pass coverage, which prompted Manning to change the offensive approach towards the run. Although they had some success, the Broncos lacked the explosiveness that they had become accustomed to via the pass. Look for Manning to come out swinging with a gunslinger mentality as this may be his best and final chance to win another championship.
Line: New England +5.5
Prediction: I almost thought I needed to get my eyes examined when I saw this line. Throw the X’s and O’s aside for a moment. The Patriots only lost by more than five points once this whole season. Does anyone really consider Tom Brady an underdog in the playoffs? Did I mention that Belichick/Brady is the most successful Coach/QB combination in NFL history? There’s an unwritten rule when it comes to the playoffs: Don’t ever bet against Brady when he’s getting points. Sit back, relax and take the Patriots with confidence.
Pick: New England +5.5
Sandeep Rajpal is an NFL writer for RantSports.com