It’s finally here. Now you can stop pretending that you put in a full, honest week at work and that you weren’t distracted all week because of Brady-Manning XVII.
Even with most playoff games, the unbridled joy that a win elicits and the sheer devastation that a loss brings are not equivalent. Last week, a loss against the Chiefs would have felt much worse than a win would have felt amazing, because it was the Chiefs in a Divisional Round game. In the 2013 AFC Championship Game when the injury-ravaged Pats went up against the Broncos at the heights of Peyton Manning’s powers, the loss didn’t feel as bad as much as the win would have felt spectacular. Lemme ask you, does that loss 2 years ago still haunt you at all? Maybe it would have a little bit if the Seahawks didn’t crush the Broncos by a score of 587 to -21 (all numbers approximate), but it doesn’t bother anyone around here 2 years later. The Pats were lucky to make it to the AFCCG, and they would have needed a miracle to win the Super Bowl that year.
Today, though, is a different story. It reminds me of how I felt on Super Bowl Sunday last February. The Pats were either going to win a Super Bowl against one of the best defenses of all time, or they were gonna fall to 3-3 in Super Bowls in the Belichick era, possibly close the book on ring #4, and likely lose Darrelle Revis and maybe Devin McCourty in free agency. The heartbreak that a SB49 loss would have brought would have felt like a stake driving right through our hearts as sports fans — which is why the Malcolm Butler interception was so exhilarating. We were on the brink of a gut-wrenching sequence of events, and we were bailed out by a 5th string, rookie, free agent corner making the most important play in football history. The jubilation was that much better because the devastation would have been so great. After reading these past 3 paragraphs, try not to get chills when you watch this play for the 5,000,000th time.
That’s what we feel today. The happiness and the sadness that a win or loss would bring are similar, because we either watch Brady end Manning’s career in the stadium that doubles as Peyton’s new home and a source of pain for the Pats. The Pats then would then play for the privilege of Roger Goodell presenting Brady, Belichick, and Kraft the Lombardi Trophy in Santa Clara, a few miles from where Brady grew up.
Or, Peyton beats Brady, as we have to live with the fact that Manning will have beaten TB12 in the playoffs more than TB12 beat Number 18. We’ll have to live with the fact that a clearly inferior Broncos team — if for no other reason than Manning now throws like an injured war veteran, thereby giving the Pats a distinct advantage both at QB and overall, and we’ll have to live with the fact that Belichick and co. would have made the wrong move (with the benefit of hindsight, of course) by laying down vs. the Jets and Dolphins in Weeks 16 and 17, giving the Broncos home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Now, onto the game.
The Pats will be without LaAdrian Waddle and Tre Jackson, which isn’t as much of a problem on the surface as Pats fans think. Vollmer, Kline, Stork, Mason, and Cannon are definitely capable of giving Brady enough time to throw quick passes now that he has all of his receivers. Problems will arise, however, if one of the O-linemen goes down. If the Pats are down to 2nd-stringers on the O-line (beyond the 2nd stringers that are already on the line now), DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller could have a field day. Ware missed the last game, and he’ll be a big addition today, but if Brady can quickly get the ball to his receivers, he’ll be neutralized today.
The Broncos defensive backs are more important today because of 2 key injuries. First, Omar Bolden, starting safety, will miss the rest of the season. Bolden can return punts, and his absence will be instrumental because everyone on the Pats not named Matthew Slater has forgotten how to cover punts.
Even more importantly, Chris Harris Jr. is playing with an injured shoulder, and his ability to play press coverage for 4 quarters will be significantly hindered. That is HUGE. Edelman and Amendola can get off the line and run their horizontal routes quickly, and if you saw the Week 12 game between these teams, you know that Brady had nowhere to throw the ball if the Broncos were able to get through the offensive line easily.
On the other side of the ball, the Pats (finally) have Hightower, Collins, Jones, and Freeny healthy. Jerod Mayo is out for the year, but he wouldn’t have been much of an asset today, anyway. A big reason the Pats lost the game was that he couldn’t handle the Broncos running game because of his age and the thin air in Denver, and Jonathan Freeny can provide 80-90% of what Mayo can. Mayo won’t be able to take some snaps and keep the Pats LBs fresh, which is too bad, but having all the other guys healthy is 10 times more important than Mayo being out.
Lastly, Peyton Manning simply isn’t the best quarterback for the Broncos in this game. When Bill Belichick can focus on taking away a certain aspect of an offense and give up something else, he’s a beast. The Pats D can be beaten deep, but Manning can’t throw the ball deep without having a drone deliver it to a receiver. Brock Osweiler would have been the better call, and we should all be grateful that seniority is a thing and that “Manning has earned the right to play this game.”
I would be very nervous about the game if Osweiler was playing, and if he has to come in at halftime after Manning basically dies on the field in the 1st half, then I’ll be very nervous if the game is within about 10 points. I’ve been saying for awhile now that Mile High stadium is a horrible place for the Pats to play, and today we’ll know for sure whether Belichick was right to rest everybody in the final weeks of the season.
Prediction: These games always come down to health far more than we realize, and today will be no different. Having Amendola, Edelman, Hightower, and Gronk back will be huge, and Edelman and Amendola will capitalize on Chris Harris’ injury. Peyton Manning simply can’t beat Tom Brady in the playoffs at this point in their careers unless the thin air plays a huge role and the rest of the Broncos are much better than the rest of the Patriots. The Pats should be able to overcome the thin air, and the Pats and Broncos minus the quarterbacks are similar enough that the difference between Brady and Manning will decide the game.