The last time New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was overtly concerned about a Peyton Manning-led offense was 2009. The Patriots were playing the Colts, Manning's team at the time, in Indianapolis.
New England led, 34-28, in the fourth quarter and was staring at a fourth down play on their own side of the field. Belichick, having watched the Colts offense walk all over his defense, decided to go for it to keep the ball away from Manning. On the play, Pats quarterback Tom Brady threw a short pass to running back Kevin Faulk, who was tackled just shy of the first down marker.
The Colts took possession and scored the game-winning touchdown with less than a minute remaining in the game. For the entire contest, the Patriots had the ball for 35 minutes, the Colts almost 25. Indianapolis went on that season to reach Super Bowl XLIV, where they lost to the Saints.
When the Patriots overcame a 24-point halftime deficit to beat the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning in New England this past November, Brady and the offense had to score quickly and often to get back in the game and eventually take the lead. However, a fourth-quarter, seven-point Patriot cushion disappeared when Manning drove the Broncos down the field to tie the game with a touchdown pass.
The Broncos' Knowshon Moreno ran for 224 yards in the game as the Pats defense almost dared Manning, who only passed for 150 yards, to throw when having success on the ground. In overtime, a special teams fumble recovery by New England's punt coverage unit that resulted in the game-winning field goal was the difference. The time of possession battle in New England's 34-31 victory was won ... by the Broncos.
The point of all this is to say what's past is prologue: the Patriots head coach knows better than most how powerful the Broncos offense is with Manning at the controls. They set a new NFL record for points scored in a season - 606. Manning threw for over 5,400 yards and a record-breaking 55 touchdown passes.
Belichick will be looking to control the football Sunday in the AFC championship game at Denver's Mile High Stadium so as to keep Manning off the field, Brady and the Patriot offense making key plays when called upon to maintain possession, score points, and run down the clock.
While Brady has Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and a cast of young receivers this season, it's the Patriots running game that will have to carry the load in terms of ball possession. Running back LeGarrette Blount gained 166 yards and 4 touchdowns last Saturday night versus the Colts in the AFC Divisional playoff. New England won't have the services of injured tight end Dan Gronkowski, who caught seven passes for 90 yards and a touchdown when these two teams last played.
Another big reason to lean on Brady and the Patriots offense is the number of Patriot defenders that have been sidelined by injury this season. Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo are just two of New England's defensive stalwarts who won't be on the field in Denver Sunday afternoon. Defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones have stepped up their play in recent weeks, as have cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard.
Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning knows the New England defense, as it's presently comprised, can still cause problems. Talking with reporters Wednesday, he singled out Patriot linebackers Jamie Collins and Don't'a Hightower.
“They’re extremely athletic. They’re active guys, big, physical, strong guys. Collins is rangey. Hightower is around the ball, explosive guy," Manning said. "Not many linebackers have that kind of size and strength. Two impressive athletes that have stepped right up and answered the bell like you said when they lost some other key starters,” he added.
On top of playing at home for the AFC championship, the Broncos will have their full complement of receivers Sunday. Tight end Julius Thomas, who missed the first Patriots-Broncos tilt due to injury, has returned to the Denver lineup to join Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas, and Eric Decker as Peyton Manning's main targets in an offense that will look to light up the Sports Authority scoreboard.
In the Bronco backfield is the aforementioned Moreno who caught 60 passes and rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2013, although the Patriot game was the only one where he rushed for 100 yards or better all season. Denver also has fresh legs in the form of rookie Montee Ball, who averaged almost five yards a carry this season.
Defensively, the Broncos this season won't remind anyone of the 'Orange Crush' defense of the late 1970s. All-Pro linebacker Von Miller missed six games due to suspension, then was injured. But contributions from the likes of linebacker Danny Trevathan and defensive lineman Shaun Phillips, who has 10 sacks, have kept the unit effective.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady discussed Denver's defense and what's before them as a team in this championship game.
"We'll be challenged because they have a very good defense and they play well at home. I think we just have to understand what it's going to take from our offense to go out there and win a very tough game on the road against a very good team led by one of the great quarterbacks of all time," Brady told reporters Friday.
One final note, courtesy of the Denver Post and NFL.com: Brady has a 7-0 record when facing Jack Del Rio, whether as the former head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars or current defensive coordinator of the Broncos.
The AFC championship game will be televised on CBS, beginning at 3 p.m. Eastern time Sunday.