Time Out for Sports Talk – Omaha! Plenty At Stake In Denver On Sunday
Todd: Word of warning – this is going to be one of those columns that contains a bunch of random, rambling thoughts and statistics. I’m hopeful that by the time you’ve finished reading that it will all come together in your mind.
Twenty years ago this month two significant events occurred. The first was Robert Kraft purchasing the New England Patriots and assuring all Pats fans (myself included, since 1978) that the football franchise would be staying put. A few months later Mike and I had the opportunity to pay our thanks by purchasing season tickets. For the remainder of the 1990’s we watched an organization rise from the depths of the NFL’s bottom feeders (and punch line for many a joke) to eventually become one of the most successful and envied franchises in all of professional sports. In fact, Kraft is the first NFL owner to bring his team to six Super Bowls (hoping to soon make it seven).
Just for some perspective on how truly good we Pats fans have it (and yes most of us do appreciate it, Charles Barkley), do you realize that in twelve seasons as the Pats’ starting quarterback, Tom Brady has now made it to eight AFC Championship games? Two out of every three years Brady is playing in this game! No other NFL quarterback in the history of the game has had that kind of success rate over that long a period. It’s safe to say the folks in Canton have finished Brady’s bust and it’s simply locked away until its appearance some time in the next decade.
I don’t plan to devote much space to last week’s divisional playoff win over the Colts (I’ll leave that to Mike if he wants to), but will offer a few brief thoughts. First, I would have never expected the Pats to score 43 points without Brady throwing a single touchdown pass. Also never would have expected punter Ryan Allen to try and do what he did after that Danny Aiken’s snap sailed over his head (and hopefully Allen is back and ready to go this week). Finally, LeGarrette Blount is a beast, and rookie linebacker Jamie Collins might well be on his way to becoming one!
So here we are. The AFC Championship matchup that we’ve all envisioned since the start of the season has come to fruition. Seriously, how often does that ever happen? And look at how both teams have endured a slew of injuries to make it this far. This is not only a historic matchup of rival teams dating back to the old AFL, but also of rival quarterbacks dating back to September 30, 2001 when Tom and Peyton first played each other at the old Foxboro Stadium (with Brady’s Pats thumping Manning’s Colts 44-13).
Sunday afternoon in Denver, Brady and Manning will meet for the fifteenth and possibly final time (Brady leads 10-4, 2-1 in the postseason). I say possibly, because don’t forget these guys aren’t exactly spring chickens (and apparently neither am I for using that turn of phrase). Manning is 37 and not far removed from major neck surgery, while Brady is 36 and has taken more of a pounding in recent years. It’s not a given that the two greatest signal callers of our generation (who currently have over 125,000 combined passing yards) will continue to square off against one another, particularly with so much on the line for them and their respective teams.
As I started thinking about this game, I realized it’s been seven years since the Pats played a true road playoff game (Super Bowls don’t count as technically those are neutral site games). That was against Peyton and the Colts in the AFC Championship game which the Pats lost 38-34 after blowing a 21-3 first half lead. Looking back at that game and that season, Brady’s receiving options included Reche Caldwell, Doug Gabriel and rookie Chad Jackson. Once again, Brady’s options look fairly limited beyond Edelman, Amendola and Vereen.
I also doubt this game will play out the way November’s meeting (a 34-31 OT win for the Pats) at Gillette Stadium did. In that game the Pats defense dared Manning to run the ball more so Knowshon Moreno dashed for 224 yards, but tight end and favorite Manning red zone target Julius Thomas missed that game due to injury. He’s back now, as are all of Peyton’s other top receivers, so I would expect him to throw more this time around. The question is will Belichick and rest of the defensive coaching staff be able to disguise coverage enough to confuse Peyton into making bad decisions?
I can see many different scenarios for Sunday's game, but what I think I can safely guarantee based on how this NFL season has played out is that at least one player will sustain a serious injury and that one team will get the benefit of at least one bogus pass interference penalty.
If that doesn’t decide the outcome, it’ll come down to turnovers, special teams play and efficiency on both third down and in the red zone. With regards to the latter, the Broncos have scored an astounding 51 touchdowns in 67 red zone trips this season, and Manning has his all his top receiving options healthy and ready to go. This feels like the kind of game where Gronkowski’s loss is really going to be felt.
The Pats have played so admirably all season as players have dropped like flies week after week. I think it’s asking an awful lot of them to shut down Manning and Denver’s prolific offense, as it is asking Brady to match Peyton score for score with a depleted corps of receivers. The final break I was hoping the Pats might catch was from Mother Nature, but she must be a Peyton Manning fan as temps are expected to reach 60 degrees with sunny skies in Denver on Sunday.
I know the Pats have won a lot of close games this year and are 6-1 in games decided by three points or less. But oddly enough they are 0-2 this season in games decided by exactly four points. I’ll going to use that quirk in predicting a (hopefully wrong) final score: Broncos 31, Patriots 27.
Mike: I can't believe it's been 20 years, time really does fly. And yes, when we were sitting on those ridiculous metal benches in the old stadium, I was fully convinced that even though the team was getting better (and went to a Super Bowl in 1996), there was no way they would be one of the dominant teams in the NFL.
I'm so glad I was wrong.
This has been an unreal run of success, and the one stat that Todd used that really gave me pause was the fact that the Pats have been in the AFC Championship Game 8 out of Brady's 12 years. Wow. Just wow.
I must admit that I was a bit nervous going into last week's game. The Colts were a pretty hot team and the Pats had been decimated by injury. To me, there was a good potential for an upset here.
Once again, I'm so glad I was wrong.
I guess I didn't expect to see the Patriots morph into a power running team and simply gash the Colts and kick their butts in the way that they did. It was a little amazing to watch the Pats put up so many points without a touchdown pass from Brady, I didn't think that was possible.
Now on to Denver, and what has been a house of horrors for New England over the years.
Even before Manning got there, Denver has had the Patriots number over the years. It seems that every time the Patriots go into the Mile High City, something just goes terribly wrong and they come out on the short end of the stick.
Now they go into Denver, a place where they have never won a postseason game and will be looking to derail one of, if not the most prolific offense the NFL has ever seen.
I think they can do it.
Call it a gut feeling, but I think there's more to this game than what you see on the field. This game is about legacy. With time running out on both their careers, whichever QB wins this one will have a significant leg up on their rival on who is the best of their generation.
Call me a homer, but I think Brady will pull this one out and silence those who have been putting Manning ahead of him. If (and when) he wins this AFC championship, he will have bested Manning 3 times in 4 AFC Championship games.
Also, this is about more than being better than Manning. If Brady wins this Super Bowl, he will have four rings, the same as his boyhood idol Joe Montana, and that will put him squarely in the discussion of who is the greatest quarterback of all time.
He'll never say it publicly, but I think that matters a lot to Brady, and it will make a difference on Sunday. I like Todd's score, but the Pats win 31-27.
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PICKS
Todd (29-16 regular season, 5-3 playoffs): Just want to remind our readers that before the season I predicted Denver and Seattle to get to the Super Bowl. Given that both teams are hosting their conference championship games, it’s hard for me to reverse that pick now, although somewhat tempting given that I think the Pats-Broncos game will be close and also given how impressive San Francisco has looked in their two postseason wins. But like Denver, Seattle is a tough place to play with #12 (had to remind a friend I was watching last week’s Pats game with that #12 is retired for the Seahawks fans). I also like Seattle’s defense a little better, especially playing on their home turf.
Also at play this weekend is the rare feat of two number one seeds potentially meeting in the Super Bowl. The Saints and Colts did it four years ago, but prior to that the last time was…exactly twenty years ago when the Cowboys beat the Bills in SB XXVIII. Wow, talk about coming full circle—I began and will close my thoughts this week with a reference to January of 1994, taking it as a sign that perhaps the two top seeds might make it again this year. Seahawks 26, Forty Niners 23.
Mike (24-20-1 regular season, 4-4 playoffs): So, Todd said this...
Just want to remind our readers that before the season I predicted Denver and Seattle to get to the Super Bowl.
But he left out the part (in the same September column) where I said this...
I am seriously hoping for a major blizzard to strike New Jersey on Super Bowl Sunday. It would serve the NFL right to have the game in the snow after making the decision to hold an outdoor night game in the Northeast in February. I hope all of the corporate ticket holders who are there to see and be seen enjoy freezing their butts off. Me, I’ll be home in my sweats nice and warm watching the action.
As for the game, the Patriots are going to go all the way, beating the 49ers 31-20.
Our next LIVE show is our 20th Anniversary special and Super Bowl XLVIII preview coming up on Monday, January 27 from 8-9pm. You can post your questions via Twitter using the hashtag #TOST20years.