AFC Championship Prediction

AFC Championship Prediction: Broncos will stampede to Super Bowl

By The Rex Factor

The top two seeds in the AFC will meet for the right to advance to Santa Clara, Calif., and Super Bowl 50 in a couple of weeks.

The idea for me is to take the thoughts and try to condense them down into a few hundred words, but it’s very difficult. There is so much good and pertinent information out there, as this is yet another highly-anticipated duel between legendary quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

This will be the 17th time that the two will have squared off as starters, but as Manning pointed out, this is hardly “Bird/Magic”. Unlike in basketball, the two quarterbacks will never be on the field at the same time. It’s up to Manning to figure out how to solve a Bill Belichick defense, and it’s up to Brady to score points and keep pressure on what has been a pedestrian Denver offense all season.

The Broncos won the first meeting of the season, twice coming from two touchdowns back to beat the Pats 30-24 in overtime with Brock Osweiler at quarterback for the injured Manning in Denver. That was New England’s first loss, and the Pats battled the injury bug and a slump down the stretch to lose four of their last six regular season games before rebounding against red-hot Kansas City last week.

Several key players from both sides missed that Week 12 game. New England didn’t have receivers Julian Edelman or Danny Amendola and two defensive starters. The Pats also lost Dont’a Hightower and tight end Rob Gronkowski to injuries during the game.

For Denver, Manning and pass rusher DeMarcus Ware were inactive, while safety T.J. Ward and defensive tackle Sylvester Williams both went down with ankle injuries in the first quarter. All four of those guys will play Sunday as the Broncos field their healthiest roster of the season.

New England listed 16 players as questionable on the Friday afternoon injury report, although most of its guys should play. Perhaps a surprising inactive or two could come out Sunday afternoon.

First, let’s make a case for New England. It’s not a difficult sell for most of the betting public; as of less than 48 hours to kickoff all three books that I looked into offshore showed New England money at a 4-to-1 clip or more, with the Pats also receiving 70 or more percent of all straight bets.

Brady led the league with 36 touchdown passes and had just seven interceptions. He saw Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hit on many big plays last week en route to 339 yards. The Steelers, minus big play receiver Antonio Brown, still put up a season high 396 yards on the vaunted Bronco defense. You can be sure that New England will use some of Pittsburgh’s concepts to try to make big plays against a suddenly-vulnerable Denver secondary, especially if Chris Harris is playing hurt.

On the other side, plenty of Manning detractors have been at full throat for most of the season, and they see this as a chance to “get him”. He’s only thrown for one home touchdown pass this season (Brady threw for 3 in Denver earlier this season) and his arm strength is noticeably weaker than it was two years ago, when Manning piloted the most prolific offense in NFL history. His 9-to-17 TD/INT ratio is laughably bad. The only other NFL offense this year with a negative TD/INT ratio was Dallas, which could not overcome that on its way to a 4-12 record after being the NFC East favorite in the preseason.

Now Manning’s merely a “game manager”. That said, he’s a pretty good one.

Turnovers were a big issue early in the season, but in the 5-plus quarters Manning has played since Week 17, the Broncos have not turned the ball over. Manning can also do something Osweiler (nor many others) can’t – get the Broncos into the right spots pre-snap. He continually and repeatedly made proper checks, mostly to run plays, in leading comeback wins over San Diego and Pittsburgh. The backfield has featured healthy backs Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson in the second half of the season, and Denver ran 30 times for 175 yards against the Pats in the first meeting. Much of that came after the Pats wore down in the fourth quarter and in overtime, and without Manning in there to put the Broncos in even better situations to succeed.

His arm strength, or lack thereof, was greatly exaggerated last week, when he routinely made the big intermediate pass, including a few out routes that most teams have been daring him to make since the Super Bowl two years ago. Denver’s receivers dropped seven passes and have led the league in that dubious stat since the middle of the season. Certainly, that will have to be shored up. But it shouldn’t take too many points to win this game.

That’s because the Bronco defense is the best in the league, and it’s not particularly close.

Denver allowed just 4.4 yards per play this season; no one else in the AFC allowed less than 5! The Broncos rank first overall and against the pass, which should be pertinent because New England has shown no interest in trying to run the ball since losing multiple running backs for the season to injury and with a makeshift line.

The Broncos should repeat what a few other teams with a strong interior pass rush (notably Buffalo, Philadelphia, the Jets and Miami) have done this year, and that’s to get pressure up the middle on Brady. It doesn’t matter how fast his release time is when the O-line can’t even develop a pocket for him. The Broncos led the league in sacks, and the Pats used 13 different starting lineups on their offensive line (most in 22 years by any team, which is far back as STATS records go). The Pats have used 37 different offensive line combinations on the season!

So Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe should be able to punish the guards and center in the 3-4 Denver scheme. Note that linebacker Von Miller had two game-changing rushes in the fourth quarter and in overtime, both coming on stunts inside against one of the guards. Brady isn’t going to flee the pocket like a mobile quarterback so edge rushers aren’t the main concern – the middle push will be key so Brady can’t step up. Kansas City has speed on the edge but got no push up the middle last week, so Brady largely had plenty of time to operate.

Manning has to continue to embrace his role as a dreaded “game manager”; the pressure is truly not on him like it was when he was clearly the best player and had to carry his teams in Indianapolis. He doesn’t have to be anything better than adequate here – get the Broncos into the right play and avoid turning the ball over. He’s never had a running game like this to lean on during the playoffs, and when it gets colder outside. The Broncos are a stellar 9-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less this season.

Brady has a winning record all-time against “Ol’ 18”, but they have split four playoff games going back to Manning’s days in Indianapolis. Note that Manning has won the last two, and the home team has won all four of those match-ups. This is also the first time Manning has been a playoff underdog since 2006, when the Colts went to Baltimore as a 4-point dog and won outright on their way to winning the Super Bowl that season.

In the last 10 years, the Pats have played in just four road playoff games. The only win was in San Diego, by 3. They have lost twice in Denver and once in Indianapolis in the other three games, and Brady’s all-time record in Denver is 2-6. The wins came against Denver QB’s Danny Kanell (2003) and Tim Tebow (2011). Also notable is New England playing UNDER in each of their last five AFC title games dating back to 2007’s 18-1 season.

One last note: Denver is 6-0 since 2008 when Ed Hochuli has been the head referee, with underdogs going 12-2 ATS this year (two other games he did closed at a PICK). New England is 3-4 in seven Hochuli games since 2010.

Prediction: Denver 23, New England 16
Recommendation: Denver +3 or better medium and UNDER 44.5 medium to big

The Rex Factor knows that football playoff time is the best time of the year to be a bettor and a bookmaker alike. He’s been following the BCS and the NFL Playoffs since the 1990s.

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