Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos survived on Sunday, outlasting the Pittsburgh Steelers 23-16 in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. They managed to get by thanks to precise field goal kicking, defense and playing field position.
However, there are some real concerns about whether that will be enough as they prepare for their rematch with the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game as early 3-point betting underdogs at home at the sportsbooks.
The Broncos have already defeated the Patriots once this season; they were the first team to beat them this year, upending the 10-0 Pats in overtime back in Week 12.
However, the Broncos have appeared to be a fading commodity ever since. On offense, they’re averaging just 21.0 points per game over their last six games after averaging nearly two points more in their first 11 games. As for the defense, the unit that allowed just 18.3 points per game through their first 10 contests this season has allowed 21.8 over its last four.
Of particular concern could be the league’s supposed top-ranked pass defense, which gave up 300+ passing yards for just the second time this season last Sunday. Ben Roethlisberger, with his bad shoulder and without star wideout Antonio Brown, carved up the Broncos’ secondary for 339 yards.
The Patriots should love what they see as Tom Brady had 280 yards and three touchdowns the first time these two teams met this season.
New England has some questions of their own to address as many will be wondering if they can win with a one-dimensional offense. They passed the ball 42 times in the first meeting with Denver while running it just 16 times (for 39 yards). And in their 27-20 win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Round the Patriots passed 42 times and ran it just 14 times (for 38 yards).
Can the Patriots continue to win – especially on the road – while relying solely on Brady’s arm?
Of course, the main storyline of conference championship week is going to be the 17th episode of Brady vs. Manning. Brady leads the all-time series 11-5, and even if Manning gets one more on the ledger next week the win likely won’t be because of his doing.
Manning didn’t play in the first meeting in Week 12, as he was injured, and he’s had an ugly season – tossing just nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions. He’s become nothing more than a glorified game manager for the Broncos heading into the AFC Championship Game with a berth in Super Bowl 50 on the line.