New England Patriots (-3, 44.5) at Denver Broncos
Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in one last ride. This Sunday (3:05 PM Eastern), the New England Patriots (12-4, 5-3 Away) and the Denver Broncos (12-4, 6-2 Home) will ho go head-to-head at Mile High for a spot in Super Bowl 50.
Unlike the 2013 AFC Championship game (the last time these two teams met at this stage), the Patriots are field-goal favorites this year. Back then, Brady and the Pats were 4.5-point road dogs and they lost both SU and ATS (26-16).
But Brady has maintained his status as an elite signal-caller, while Manning has become a shadow of his former self.
Brady’s dominance was on full display against Kansas City last weekend. He passed for 302 yards and two TDs (plus another major on the ground) as his Pats put an abrupt halt on KC’s 11-game win streak (27-20).
Hampered by key injuries down the stretch (which led to a 2-4 finish to the regular season), New England was back to (nearly) full strength in the Divisional Playoffs. The return of Julian Edelman was a particular boon; the elusive receiver caught ten passes for 100 yards. His presence also helped free up TE Rob Gronkowski, who had eight catches for 83 yards and two scores.
This will be New England’s unprecedented tenth AFC Championship in the last 15 years. Brady has gone 6-3 so far, but two of those losses were against Peyton Manning (2006 and 2013).
For Peyton Manning, Sunday’s game will be his fifth AFC title game; though his playoff acumen is frequently criticized, he’s actually 3-1 in conference championships and has yet to lose at home.
But it won’t be the same old Peyton taking the field this time. Manning had a dismal regular season, throwing 17 picks before getting injured and losing his starting job to Brock Osweiler. Manning regained the starting role in Week 17 when Osweiler became pick-happy himself. But, even with several weeks of rest, he still didn’t resemble the QB who holds almost every career passing record there is.
Manning was able to staunch the concerning flow of turnovers against the Steelers last week, going 21 of 37 for 222 yards with no touchdowns and no picks. His performance was good enough to lead the Broncos to a 23-16 win, though the Denver defense should get most of the credit. They held Ben Roethlisberger to zero touchdown passes, as well, and generated a late turnover (while trailing 13-12) that turned the tide of the game.
This weekend will be a rematch of Week 14 when the Broncos downed the Patriots 30-24 in OT. But both teams will look significantly different. Denver was led by Osweiler at the time while New England didn’t have Edelman or fellow WR Danny Amendola.
Given the strength of the Bronco D and the one-dimensional nature of the New England offense, it’s tempting to take Denver at home plus the points. But the Broncos are 0-3-1 ATS in their last four home games and 1-5-1 ATS in their last seven playoff games, while the Pats have been solid in the postseason of late, going 4-1 ATS in their last five as a favorite. New England is also 5-2 SU in its last seven games against Denver.
Pick: Patriots -3.
(Photo credit: Jeffrey Beall (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode]. Photo has been cropped from its original.)
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