ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — It would be easy to get confused regarding Sunday’s AFC championship game. It’s still Denver Broncos vs. New England Patriots, regardless of the breathless proclamations about this being the fourth postseason duel between quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
But even some players acknowledge that this confluence of two all-time quarterbacks — perhaps for the final time in the postseason — is a moment to be savored.
“It’ll be amazing. Hopefully I’ll be able to mention my name correlated with that topic in history,” said cornerback Omar Bolden.
Broncos coach John Fox deflected the hype around the two quarterbacks, but understands it.
“I think it speaks to both players,” he said. “They both accomplished a lot of great things in this league. They haven’t carried or spoiled the league, so that doesn’t surprise me. As far as matchup and all those things, it’s a little bit like this game, and in games when they get in bigger magnitude, it’s really noise, and both those guys understand.”
But it’s the kind of beautiful noise upon which the rest of the nation remains fixated, even as most in the game narrow their view to their own tasks.
“Obviously that is going to be a focus for a lot of people. But for us, it’s about ourselves and making sure that we all individually do our jobs, so when we show up Sunday, that we give ourselves the best chance to win,” said wide receiver Eric Decker.
This rematch has been seven years in the making and carries with it the weight of Manning’s potential legacy.
Belichick and Brady have no such concerns. While there are some snipes and groans about the Patriots’ inability to win another Super Bowl since defeating the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX nine years ago, their reputations are assured. Manning went so far as say Belichick will “go down as the greatest NFL coach of all time,” and after guiding the once inconsistent Patriots to 13 consecutive winning seasons, 11 consecutive seasons with at least 10 wins and 11 playoff appearances and five conference championships since 2001, few would argue.
Meanwhile, Manning’s playoff record of 10-11 has come under scrutiny, even as he sits among the league’s top 10 postseason quarterbacks (with at least 200 attempts) in yardage, touchdown passes, completion percentage and quarterback rating. Brady also ranks among the top 10 in those categories, although Manning’s rank is slightly higher (5.25 to 5.75).
The one man who could legitimately differentiate between the quarterbacks — wide receiver Wes Welker — chose not to.
“I’ll try and answer this and be as indifferent as possible. There aren’t too many differences,” Welker said. “They are great quarterbacks. They do a great job of keeping guys accountable, and their leadership skills and everything else. They are two guys you want quarterbacking your team. It’s a toss-up between those two.”
While myriad factors contribute to the final win-loss result in the postseason for the quarterbacks Manning’s sub-.500 mark as a starter and a 1-2 postseason ledger with Brady on the other sideline places his legacy under scrutiny.
Whether the criticism is warranted or not is another debate entirely. But Manning is a keen student of the sport’s history, having absorbed it since growing up and watching his father, Archie, through the latter stages of a 14-season career that was pockmarked with the what-ifs and might-have-beens that are typical of teams with little talent beyond the quarterback position, as Archie Manning’s Saints did.
The Broncos went into the season with a talented roster that was picked apart by injuries. That they have made it to this level is testament to Manning’s record-breaking season and a coaching staff that adapted as fast as change was foisted upon them. But that won’t stop questions from lingering — fair or unfair — if the Broncos fall short Sunday.
TV: 3 p.m., CBS.
ABOUT THE PATRIOTS (13-4): Brady threw for 344 yards and three touchdowns in the first meeting with Denver, but his 25 TDs — fewer than half of Manning’s 55 — and 87.3 passer rating represented his lowest marks since the 2006 season. Brady did not crack 200 yards in his last three games and played a supporting role in last week’s 43-22 rout of Indianapolis, failing to throw a scoring pass as New England rode a punishing running game led by LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley, who combined for 218 yards and six touchdowns. The 250-pound Blount has been a monster down the stretch with 431 yards and eight scores in his last three games, including a sledgehammer 166-yard, four-TD performance a week ago. New England’s defense, which allowed an average of 21.1 points during the regular season, registered four interceptions and three sacks against Colts QB Andrew Luck last week.
ABOUT THE BRONCOS (14-3): Manning orchestrated the top offensive season in league history, throwing for 55 touchdowns and an NFL-record 5,477 yards as Denver became the first team to surpass 600 points. The Broncos are the first team in history to have five players score 10 touchdowns, including wideouts Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, ex-Patriot Wes Welker and tight end Julius Thomas, who missed the first matchup with New England but had six catches for 76 yards in last week’s 24-17 win over San Diego. Knowshon Moreno, who rushed for 83 yards and a score last week, rumbled for a career-high 224 yards on 37 carries in the earlier meeting with New England as Denver relied on the ground game in frigid, windy conditions. The Broncos’ much-maligned defense has surrendered 44 points in the last three games but lost star cornerback Chris Harris Jr. to a knee injury last week.