2016 NFL Championship Preview: New England at Denver

The NFL season is like a good season of television. Like the old standard for television shows, it takes place over 22 weeks, with one game (episode) per week. Throughout the season, and over many seasons, football fans are treated to great character development and consistently intriguing plots. The competition to win a Super Bowl, which only one team can be succeed at each year, often feels as epic as Game of Thrones, Scandalor Downton AbbeyI’m always surprised when I talk to non-sports fans who are themselves surprised that I think about football in terms of plot and characters. I don’t think I’m unique among sports fans for following sports in this way, although perhaps most people wouldn’t use those terms. In any case, at this point, with only two episodes and three games left, this year’s arcs feel a little less epic than most. One reason for that is that the last four teams alive in the playoffs are the top four seeds, ranked one and two in each of the two conferences, the AFC and NFC. By earning a top-two seed, these teams got a bye, which means they took the first week of the playoffs off. So, we don’t have a team this weekend that’s coming off two playoff wins, with at least one surprise win. On the other hand, we do have the four teams that played the best over the course of the regular season. We’re set up perfectly for things to get truly epic very soon.

In this post, we’ll preview the plot and characters of the first NFL Championship game, the AFC Championship between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots. This game is in Denver on Sunday, January 24, 2016 at 3 p.m. ET on CBS.

What’s the Plot?

This game is being billed as MANNING VS. BRADY XVII because it is the 17th time the quarterbacks of the teams, Peyton Manning for Denver and Tom Brady for New England, have played each other. That’s a big number for any pair of quarterbacks, but for two who have never been in the same division (and would therefore only play once per year in the regular season,) it’s a huge number. That number includes four playoff games, which is not a surprise because Manning and Brady have been among the most successful quarterbacks in the league over the past fifteen years. This is almost definitely their last meeting in the playoffs. Could there be a better way to end the rivalry? With one last game and a Super Bowl trip on the line?

Until two or three years ago, the conventional way of looking at their rivalry was to believe that Manning was the more prolific player but that Brady was more of a winner. Manning set more records but Brady had a psychological je ne sais quoi that helped him win when the stakes were high. Brady has won four Super Bowls in six Super Bowl appearances, Manning only one in three. Another key difference is that Manning was basically his own coach, managing all of the elements of his team’s offense, while Brady was a masterful piece, but still a cog in a system whose mastermind was coach Bill Belichick. For most of the past fifteen years, you could have a legitimate argument about who was better between the two. Now things have changed, and most people look at Brady and Manning quite differently. At age 38, Brady is still going strong. He looks as good as ever. Calm, almost regal while he plays, and pinpoint accurate as a thrower. Manning, on the other hand, is a mess. His throws wobble all over the place, he was benched for a big portion of the season, and he’s had to accept a form of demotion — he now fits into his coach’s idea about how the offense should operate, not the other way around. The key reason for this change? While each quarterback has suffered a major injury during their career (honestly, how could they not after such long NFL careers?) Brady’s was a torn ACL, something which has become relatively routine to return from, while Manning’s was an unusual neck injury which required spinal surgery and has left him with reduced strength in his throwing arm and a loss of feeling in his hand.

Characterizing a football game as a matchup between two great quarterbacks is a convenient thing to do. Quarterbacks are the highest profile characters and often the single most important players on their teams. With this game in mind, I argued earlier this week that this approach to plot is a legitimate one. Manning vs. Brady is definitely an attractive way of thinking about the plot of this game. Even given the physical disparity between the two quarterbacks’ conditions, it still works. Instead of being an anything you can do, I can do better competition, it’s a pair of individual events. Manning has to overcome his own limitations. He’ll be battling time and his own body to see if he can eek one more great (or, frankly, even average) performance out of himself. Brady will be engaged in a prolonged struggle with an equally daunting but external enemy, Denver’s defense, which is thought of as the very best in the league this year. Whichever team can win their own personal battle will probably win the game.

Who are the main characters on the New England Patriots?

Bill Belichick — It all starts with coach Bill Belichick. Now the longest tenured coach in the league by far (Belichick started in New England in 2000, the next two coaches started at their jobs in 2003 and 2006!), depending on who you talk to, Belichick is thought of as either an evil genius or a benevolent one, but either way, he’s given a lot of the credit for the Patriots’ winning ways. He’s not a stereotypical football coach who screams and yells or tries to motivate his players. He doesn’t give memorable half-time speeches. He just tries (with his assistant coaches) to out-think, out-smart, and out-prepare the opposing team. Before every game, Belichick figures out what the other team is good at and what they’re bad at. Then he decides how to attack them where they’re weak and avoid falling prey to what they are good at. It seems simple, but most teams either can’t figure this out or are unable or unwilling to change what they do fast enough to adjust to their opponent.

Rob Gronkowski — Tight end Rob Gronkowski provides an element of meat to balance Brady and Belichick’s cerebral natures. Gronkowski is a 6’6″ 265 lbs football monster. When he goes down the field to catch a pass, he often looks too big, too fast, and too skilled for the other team to have a chance at stopping him. He looks improbable, like the result of a cheat code in a video game. Then a defender hits him and every Patriots fan in the world gasps. Gronkowski’s one weakness is his health. He seems to always either be seriously injured, hobbled, or one hit away from being one of those things. Right now, reports say he’s suffering from knee and back injuries. Only time will tell if that’s true, but if it isn’t, watch out!

Malcolm Brown / Alan Branch — With Manning limited, the Broncos almost definitely need to run the ball effectively to win this game. The Patriots first line of defense against the run are their two big defensive tackles, Malcolm Brown and Alan Branch. Brown and Branch are classic Patriots finds — the 6’6″, 350 lbs Branch is a veteran player who was cut from several teams before ending up on the Patriots, where he has thrived. The smaller Brown, 6’2″, 320 lbs is a rookie who was picked at the end of the first round by the Patriots in this year’s NFL draft. If these two guys can keep from getting pushed backwards by the Broncos offensive line, it will go a long way toward preventing the Broncos from running effectively.

Who are the main characters on the Denver Broncos?

Demaryius Thomas / Emmanuel Sanders – Wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders have to do a better job of helping Peyton Manning drive the Broncos offense than they did last week. Last week, they combined for 125 yards and only caught nine of the 16 balls thrown their way. These are low totals for a team’s best two receivers. They’re very different from one another – Thomas is a prototypical new-age NFL receiver. He’s big, 6’3″ and 230 lbs. and aims to make big plays way down field. Sanders makes up for what he lacks in size, 5’11”, 180 lbs, with quickness and precise route running. His tendency is to catch many short passes and try to turn them into big gains by running after the catch. If anything, Manning’s lack of arm strength makes Sanders an even more ideal teammate.

Derek Wolfe / Von Miller / DeMarcus Ware – Tom Brady is one of the best quarterbacks every, but like all quarterbacks, if you hit him early and often, he can have a bad game. These are the three defenders who are most likely to knock him down and potentially knock him off his game. Wolfe is a gargantuan defensive lineman, Von Miller is a swashbuckling linebacker, and DeMarcus Ware is a savvy veteran still capable of making explosive plays. Watch for these guys to put a little extra mustard on their quarterback hits today…

Who is going to win?

When Denver lost at home in the playoffs last year, it was a stunning loss. The Broncos hadn’t seemed unbeatable, but they were definitely expected to win. This year, despite having the best record in the AFC, their fans are much more wary. If they have hope that Peyton Manning can pull one last (or second to last) rabbit out of his hat, they’re hiding that hope carefully. The Patriots are favored by three points, according to Vegas, which normally gives the home team a three point advantage over however they think the game would go on a neutral field. That means they think the Patriots are actually six points better than the Broncos. I disagree. I think the teams are much closer than that. The Broncos have more talent in their supporting cast, especially on defense, than the Patriots do. Still, the Patriots have the better quarterback and the better coach, and that’s usually enough to win the game, as it will be in this very close AFC Championship game.

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