By Gregory Hunt

The New England Patriots are in the AFC Championship Game for the fifth consecutive year, but in order to earn a return trip to the Super Bowl, the Patriots will need to get by the Denver Broncos, the team that beat them in this game two years ago. The rematch will happen Sunday afternoon at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970, the Patriots (12) and Broncos (10) have now combined for 22 appearances in the AFC Championship Game.

Season Record

Despite the loss of starting quarterback Peyton Manning for six games this season, the Broncos earned a 12-4 record in the regular season, which was good enough to win the number-one seed in the AFC playoffs. Denver won its first seven games of the season before suffering back-to-back losses, then backup quarterback Brock Osweiler took over as the sole quarterback for six games before Manning got his job back in the third quarter of Week 17. Osweiler went 4-2 during that six-game stretch, which included a 30-24 overtime win over the Patriots in Denver on November 29.

The Patriots/Broncos rivalry dates back to 1960, when the teams met in the inaugural game of the American Football League on Sept. 9. In that game, Denver defeated the then-Boston Patriots 13-10 at Boston University’s Nickerson Field. Denver leads the all-time series 29-21, including a 3-1 lead in the playoffs. Denver’s lead in the series was largely built by Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway, who went 11-0 against the Patriots from 1983-1998.

Broncos on Offense

In 2013, a healthy Manning led Denver to one of the greatest offensive seasons ever seen in the NFL, but with Manning hampered by a lingering foot injury this season, Denver’s offense has struggled. The team ranked 16th in the NFL in total offense during the regular season, gaining only 355.5 yards per game. The team also scored only 355 points, considerably less than the NFL-record 606 points the team scored in 2013.

Under head coach Gary Kubiak, who took over for John Fox this season, the Broncos are a more run-oriented team than in previous years. Thanks to both Kubiak’s offensive philosophy and to Manning’s restricted mobility, Manning is lining up in a shotgun formation far less frequently than he has in the past. But when Manning does need to throw, he has am impressive selection of play-making receivers to choose from.

Broncos on Defense

Denver’s defense has draw comparisons to the defense of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, who won Super Bowl XXXV that season by giving up fewer than 10 points per game including the postseason. Denver is physical and speedy, which allows the team to stuff the run while not sacrificing the aggressiveness of its pass rush. Denver was the only team in the NFL to give up fewer than 200 yards passing per game. It also led the league in sacks with 52 (New England was second with 49).

Broncos Players to Watch

Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, a sixth-year player from SMU, has been Denver’s biggest deep receiving threat since arriving from the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2014. In Week 12 against New England, he made only six catches, but they went for 113 yards. He is also a dangerous punt returner.

Linebacker DeMarcus Ware is in his 11th year in the NFL, but he is showing no signs of slowing down. He did miss five games this season due to injury, and he sprained an MCL in Week 17, but he came back strong with a sack in Denver’s Divisional Playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was also named AFC Defensive Player of the Month in September.

Outlook

Denver’s offense isn’t scaring anyone this season, but it’s capable of making just enough plays to support its shutdown defense. The outcome of this game will likely come down to how well New England’s offense does against that defense. The Patriots offense did stall somewhat late in the regular season, but now that so many key players on that offense have finally returned from injury, New England will look to score more than the 20 points it managed against Denver in November.

Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He’s also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women’s college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on aExaminer.com.

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