AFC Championship Game Preview

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THE AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREVIEW

PATRIOTS-BRONCOS IS MORE THAN JUST THE BRADY VS. MANNING MATCHUP AS WE SPELL OUT THE KEYS TO GETTING TO SUPER BOWL XLVIII

No matter how you slice it, it’s still hard to believe that Peyton Manning has won only one AFC Championship Game since the 2007 season (see 2009) and that Tom Brady’s not won a single Super Bowl since the 2004 campaign -- but that’s the facts as we head into Sunday’s epic AFC Championship Game between the visiting New England Patriots at the 5 ½-point favorite Denver Broncos.

What … think we’re all-of-a-sudden labeling these two guys “losers”? No way!

Still, when you dig a bit deeper into recent National Football League post-season history you’ll see that since 2005 the likes of Pittsburgh Steelers’ QB Ben Roethlisberger has appeared in (and won) three different AFC Championship Games while Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco has been a part of three AFC title tilts since 2008 while winning his lone AFC Championship Game a year ago.

Okay, so Brady and Manning deserve their respective places on the Mount Rushmore of NFL quarterbacks – for sure – but just to get the wacky media folks/NFL fans to put things in perspective here, the fact is between this dynamic duo of signal-callers they own just one Super Bowl win in all the past eight years (see Manning’s crown with Indianapolis in 2006) and so heaven knows both Brady and Manning would like to change all that, right?

AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME – NEW ENGLAND (13-4) at DENVER (14-3) – 3 p.m. ET, CBS
Have you had a little chicken soup, Mr. Brady? The Patriots’ three-time Super Bowl-winning star has been bogged down this week with some health issues – all we hear is that there was a whole lot of hand washing and sanitizer spritzers in/around the New England facilities this week – but Brady should be 100 percent good-to-go here even though he comes off one of his strangest-ever post-season games where he didn’t throw a single touchdown (or a single interception, for that matter) in last Saturday night’s 43-22 win/cover against 7-point underdog Indianapolis.

Brady’s “game-manager” bit came about because bruising RB LeGarrette Blount (166 yards rushing and 4 TDs including a game-sealing 73-yard romp) took the proverbial bull by the horns and pushed the Pats past the frisky Colts with a ground game that gobbled up 234 yards while averaging a slick 5.1 yards a pop.

Will Blount be so effective here against a Denver defense that sports more size along the defensive front? Good question.

Odds are New England head coach Bill Belichick will give his blessing to a balanced attack – last week the Patriots rushed the ball on 63 percent of their offensive plays and we fully expect that to change to closer to 50/50 here – and no doubt while NE hopes to see Blount and fellow RBs Stevan Ridley (two short TD runs last week against Indy) and Shane Vereen chew up yards and clock here while attempting to keep Mr. Manning on the sidelines, the gut feeling here is Brady (weather permitting, of course) will test that battered Broncos’ secondary that struggled so much in the final frame of last Sunday’s 24-17 hang-on-for-dear-life non-cover win over the 9-point underdog San Diego Chargers.

The key question here is who will be Brady’s top red-zone target without the presence of TE Rob Gronkowski – might Vereen coming out of the backfield be the key player-to-watch here?

If Pats’ offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels dares to be different, he’ll have Brady zing a few deep balls early on with the hopes that isolating the likes of Denver CB Quentin Jammer on one of New England’s speedier receivers can yield some “chunk plays” – something we didn’t see much of in last week’s AFC Divisional Playoff win by the Patriots.

Still, while New England’s “change of personality” to a more ground-oriented bunch lately has been getting plenty of ink the fact of the matter is the single-biggest issue here is how do the Patriots handle the Manning-led passing attack?

If you happened to notice, Manning was not sacked at all in last week’s win against the Bolts – he finished a modest 25-of-36 for 230 yards passing with two TDs and one INT (that should have been caught by WR Eric Decker in the end zone right before halftime) – and the stats-meisters out there in NFL-land say Manning was “under duress” on only 2-of-36 drop-backs and no question the Patriots will have to do better than that here – in fact, if Manning’s uniform “stays clean” here than Denver likely wins by a twin-figure margin as it’s done in seven of the team’s nine home games this year but if Belichick and DC Matt Patricia can dial up some well-timed blitzes here and make Manning chuck-and-duck, than New England could well get back to its sixth Super Bowl since 2001.

Two quickie memos for the Broncos’ offense: You better hang onto the ball this week after a series of critical drops a week ago as not only Decker botched that one red-zone throw but TE Julius Thomas dropped a pass and ditto for slot WR Wes Welker who cost Manning a touchdown on one play where all Welker had to do was secure the ball and land back-first in the end zone – if drops becomes an issue here and if Denver RBs Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball (a combined 134 rushing yards last week on 33 carries) can’t always move the chains against a Patriots’ defense that has held eight foes (including the last three in a row) to 22 points or less, than we could be heading towards just the third AFC Championship Game upset in the past 10 years.

The other memo we wish to address the Denver offense? You need a few more stretch-the-field plays – note last week neither of the Broncos’ leading pass-catchers (that’s TE Thomas and WR Demaryius Thomas) had receptions longer than 21 yards while the likes of Decker and Welker didn’t have plays longer than 19 yards.

Manning may love the hunt-and-peck ways to at times chew up an opposing defense but do you really think that New England’s stop unit will surrender a handful-or-so 75-plus yard scoring drives here?

Hmmm.

Hey, don’t forget the wind could – again – be a major factor here at Sports Authority Field – no doubt CBS game analyst Phil Simms was a bit slow on the draw last week when it concerned the swirling/twisting winds.

And so New England PK Steven Gostkowski and Denver PK Matt Prater could be forced to try a game-winning/tying boot into an unforgiving head wind … you have been warned!

Spread Notes – Denver is 10-7 ATS (against the spread) overall this season and that includes a modest 5-4 ATS home log. The Broncos are a stirring 20-9 spreadwise as betting favorites since the start of last year/the Manning Era. Meanwhile, New England enters this title tilt at 9-8 ATS overall this season and that includes two-of-three spread setbacks when placed in the underdog role. Since 2003, however, the Patriots are a dazzling 20-10-1 ATS as point-grabbers.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Here’s a game-by-game look at this year’s New England Patriots and note all home teams are in CAPS below:

WK # WINNER SPREAD LOSER SCORE
 1 New England - 10 BUFFALO 23-21
 2 NEW ENGLAND  - 11 Ny Jets 13-10
 3 NEW ENGLAND - 7 Tampa Bay 23-3
 4 New England + 3 ATLANTA 30-23
 5 CINCINNATI + 2 New England 13-6
 6 NEW ENGLAND - 2 New Orleans 30-27
 7 NY JETS + 3.5 New England  30-27 (ot)
 8 NEW ENGLAND - 6.5 Miami 27-17
 9 NEW ENGLAND - 6 Pittsburgh 55-31
 10 Bye      
 11 CAROLINA - 3 New England 24-20
 12 NEW ENGLAND PK Denver 34-31 (ot)
 13 New England - 7 HOUSTON 34-31
 14 NEW ENGLAND - 10 Cleveland 27-26
 15 MIAMI - 2.5 New England 24-20
 16 New England - 1.5 BALTIMORE 41-7
 17 NEW ENGLAND - 7 Buffalo 34-20
Div NEW ENGLAND - 7 Indianapolis 43-22

Div = Divisional Playoff Game

DENVER BRONCOS
Here’s a game-by-game look at this year’s Denver Broncos and note all home teams are in CAPS below:

WK # WINNER SPREAD LOSER SCORE
 1 DENVER - 7 Baltimore 49-27
 2 Denver - 3.5 NY GIANTS 41-23
 3 DENVER - 16.5 Oakland 37-21
 4 DENVER - 10.5 Philadelphia 52-20
 5 Denver - 7.5 DALLAS 51-48
 6 DENVER - 26.5 Jacksonville 35-19
 7 INDIANAPOLIS  + 6.5 Denver 39-33
 8 DENVER - 10 Washington 45-21
 9 Bye      
 10 Denver - 7 SAN DIEGO 28-20
 11 DENVER - 7.5 Kansas City 27-17
 12 NEW ENGLAND PK Denver  34-31(ot)
 13 Denver - 5.5 KANSAS CITY 35-28
 14 DENVER - 12.5 Tennessee 51-28
 15 San Diego + 10 DENVER 27-20
 16 Denver - 9.5 Houston 37-13
 17 DENVER - 10 Oakland 34-14
Div DENVER - 9 San Diego 24-17

Div = Divisional Playoff Game

A key reminder, folks … Get Sunday’s NFL Championship Game Sides & Totals Winners when you check with us after 9:30 a.m. ET game-day morning plus pile up the profits all this week/weekend long with NBA and NCAA Basketball winners right here online or at our toll-free telephone # of 1-800-323-4453 – go ahead and pound the books today!

Finally, your AFC Championship Game note...Only three of the last 10 AFC Championship Games have been one-score games including that monumental 2006 game when Manning’s Indianapolis Colts raced from way back to beat Brady’s Patriots 38-34 as 3-point home favorites.

NOTE: Catch our NFC Championship Game Preview in tomorrow’s edition of Jim Sez as we dissect San Francisco at Seattle.

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