It’s Brady v. Manning, Take 17

first_imgNEW YORK — The last time Tom Brady and the New England Patriots went to Denver, Peyton Manning watched the game on television from inside the locker room.Not on Sunday, though. The Broncos quarterback will take his customary spot in the huddle.Manning meets Brady for the 17th and likely last time, with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake.Straight after their AFC title game will be the NFC’s, in which the Carolina Panthers will host the Arizona Cardinals in what could be a high-scoring matchup. The Panthers averaged more than 31 points this season, and the Cardinals were a close second at 30.5.Manning didn’t suit up against New England on Nov. 29 because of a foot injury. That game was a thriller, too, with Brock Osweiler leading the Broncos to a 30-24 overtime victory.Manning’s foot is as healed as it’s going to get for now, and after the six-week layoff he’s well-rested and really come through in Denver’s past two games. But this is hardly the same Manning anymore. He doesn’t rely on his arm nearly as much as his ability to decipher schemes. He also leans heavily on the running game, and Denver’s top-ranked defense.While he has only a 5-11 record against Brady, they’re 2-2 in the playoffs, including a win by Manning two years ago in the same Mile High Stadium.The quarterbacks deserve to be a focal point, but there’s a lot more to this matchup than them.Brady is the master of these situations, in his 10th AFC Championship game, seeking an astounding seventh Super Bowl appearance. As he displayed in last week’s win over Kansas City, his ankle is little or no issue, and when given time — as a timid Chiefs defense afforded him — he’ll pick you apart.He has the weapons now that wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, plus tight end Rob Gronkowski, are healthier. Because the running game is sub-par, Brady is going to throw often, leaving the onus to stop him on Broncos pass rushers DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller, and Derek Wolfe, plus whatever schemes coordinator Wade Phillips designs to pressure Brady.What could change the flow of New England’s offense is if the oft-jumbled line can’t protect Brady. Injuries have plagued that unit all season.Where the Broncos could have an edge is in the running game through C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman. Unlike the Patriots, Denver always tries to establish the ground attack. Not that the Patriots are easy to run against, although they’re undermined by the absence of injured linebacker Jerod Mayo, and a back issue hurting their best linebacker, Jamie Collins. But Denver must try to lighten the burden on Manning, whose team will start 3 1/2-point underdogs.The Panthers are favorites by a measly three points against the Cardinals, in their first meeting since the Panthers won their first-round playoff a year ago when the Cardinals were racked by injuries.The Panthers are 1-2 in their previous three NFC title games, reaching the Super Bowl in 2003 before losing 32-29 on a late field goal to New England. Arizona won in its only other NFC Championship game in 2008 before losing to Pittsburgh 27-23 in the Super Bowl.Quarterback Cam Newton was involved in 45 touchdowns this season, and he must be accounted for first and foremost by Arizona. Newton didn’t do much as a runner last week in the win over Seattle because he didn’t have to, as running back Jonathan Stewart set the tempo with his 59-yard burst on the first snap. But Newton can control a defense with his size, strength, speed, and savvy as both a passer and runner.The Cardinals need to keep Newton in the pocket while forcing him to throw before he wants to. That means they will keep bringing the blitz.Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer has had perhaps the best season of his 13-year career, and is in the conversation for league MVP. But he comes off a mediocre performance against Green Bay in which his decision-making came into question. Perhaps he was nervous because he’d never won a playoff game.Now that he has, Palmer might go back to being the passer who can withstand the heavy pass rush he will get from the Panthers. Few teams have as versatile or deep a front seven; Carolina had five sacks against Seattle.When Palmer gets time, he’ll first look for venerable wideout Larry Fitzgerald, who had a sensational game against the Packers of eight catches for 176 yards and a touchdown. Cornerback Josh Norman is likely to get most of the coverage assignments against Fitzgerald, and that will be a highlight matchup on Sunday.TweetPinShare0 Shareslast_img read more

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