One of the greatest quarterback rivalries in NFL history will see one more legendary chapter written Sunday afternoon when Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos host Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game.
Manning and the Broncos obliterated NFL scoring records en route to the top seed in the AFC, but had all they could handle in last week's divisional-round win over San Diego. The Patriots cruised past Indianapolis to reach the conference title game for the sixth time in 13 seasons.
Here's the breakdown in our betting tale of the tape:
Brady has one of the most trying seasons of his illustrious career, having to deal with absences to key targets for most of the year. He still managed to finish sixth among NFL quarterbacks in passing yards (4,343) with 25 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The running game, which has been one of the team's rare weak spots over the years, had a strong campaign - finishing ninth in the league in total yards (2,065) while racking up 19 touchdowns.
No team in league history has been as prolific as the 2013 Broncos, who saw Manning put together one of the greatest quarterbacking seasons ever. The 38-year-old guided an offense that finished with 5,444 passing yards - over 500 more than the next-closest team - with a staggering 55 TDs against just 10 interceptions. Manning's assault on the record books helped open things up for the running game, which finished 15th in yards but racked up 16 scores.
As with the offense, New England had to deal with several key absences on defense - and as with the offense, those injuries barely slowed the team down. The Patriots finished near the middle of the pack in passing yards against (3,824) but limited foes to just 25 passing touchdowns while racking up 17 interceptions. The run defense was more porous - finishing third-last in the league in yards allowed (2,145) - but surrendered just 11 touchdowns all season.
The Broncos have had their share of injury woes, as well - and the latest may be the most damaging, as defensive back Chris Harris suffered a torn ACL and is lost for the remainder of the playoffs. It's a major development for a Denver defense that allowed the sixth-most passing yards in the regular season (4,070), giving up 29 touchdowns while snagging 17 interceptions. The Broncos gave up just 1,626 yards on the ground, but gave up 15 touchdowns.
Edge: New England
New England boasted an above-average return game in the regular season, ranking 12th in average kickoff return yardage (24) and 11th in average punt return (10.8). The Patriots were even better on the other side of the ball, allowing the fifth-lowest kick return average (20.8) and tying for eighth in punt return defense (7.6). Kicker Steven Gostkowski was an unbelievable 38-for-41 on field-goal chances in the regular season, but was held without a kick last week.
The Broncos' return game is led by speedster Trinton Holliday, who had two return touchdowns and helped guide Denver to the sixth-highest kickoff return average (25). Denver wasn't nearly as effective on the defensive side, allowing the highest kickoff return rate in the NFL (29.3) and surrendering a touchdown. Veteran placekicker Matt Prater missed just one of 26 field-goal opportunities in the regular season, and went 1-for-2 in last week's win over the Chargers.
Edge: New England
"It's definitely a test. He hard counts you to try to get you to move, see what you're in. As a defense, you've just got to not show him what you're in. You've got to do a great job of disguising, just not giving him good idea of what you want to run." - Patriots CB Aqib Talib on Manning
"I think the one thing that jumps out about Tom is his consistency. I feel he's been a better player each year than he was the year before. That speaks to his work ethic in the offseason, his refusal to be complacent or satisfied." - Manning