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‘Any given Sunday’.
This is one of the most famous phrases in sport. It references the level of parity within the NFL, any one team could beat any one else on their day. What this leads to is each season being completely individual to the next.
At the beginning of each season every team believes they have a chance of getting to the playoffs and winning the Superbowl; this leads to surprise teams making it to the playoffs or even going all the way, you just have to look at the New York Giants and the Baltimore Ravens in recent years to see this.
This year it is different. The final four teams left in the playoffs are the best four teams in the NFL, there are no dark horses left in this years race. In no particular order they are as follows: the New England Patriots, San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks.
There is a case to be made that the two games this weekend are much better quality games than the Superbowl, so it’s well worth looking at the two games individually, beginning with the New England Patriots visiting the Denver Broncos.
New England Patriots @ Denver Broncos
Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning. To seasoned NFL fans these two names are enough of a reason to watch this match-up. The two quarterbacks have been rivals in the AFC for many years and though Manning was playing for the Indianapolis Colts for many of these years, they have broken and traded records along the way.
This regular season Peyton Manning had the greatest statistical performance ever recorded, at 37 years old and following 4 neck surgeries a couple of years ago. From seeing this you’re probably thinking that this game is Manning and the Broncos to win.
Well, the thing with Peyton Manning is that he just hasn’t performed in the playoffs over the years, including throwing a game-losing interception in the Superbowl itself against the New Orleans Saints in the 2009 season. The Denver Broncos have arguably, but probably, the best set of receivers in the NFL, which of course makes Manning look just that bit better.
Tom Brady on the other hand has had his receiving group ravaged by injuries and notable off-field incidents. This means he has had to pick up his own game to make up for this shortcoming of talent. The fact that the New Patriots ended up with a 12-4 winning record is a minor miracle.
There are two key points in this game. The first being whether the Patriots’ running attack can continue its recent run of form (excuse the pun). Why is this important? With an effective running game, a team can drain the clock very effectively, reducing the number of opportunities for the opposition’s offence to control the ball. With Peyton Manning on the opposite sideline, keeping him there has to be a major part of the game plan, anything less and the Patriots will just give Manning the chance to pick them apart – a chance he would likely take if given. LeGarrette Blount and Steven Ridley, the running backs for the Patriots, are two to look out for.
The second key point is how well the defences hold up against the opposing offence. In the Divisional Round both the Broncos and Patriots had successful games defensively against the Chargers and Colts respectively. However the two offences that they faced were not the most potent of forces, unlike the two that they themselves possess. Getting pressure on the two quarterbacks will change the complexion of the game should it occur; you just have to look at the Superbowl from the 2007 season and the way the New York Giants got so much pressure onto Tom Brady that his game essentially fell apart. Pressure causes mistakes, and in the NFL, a minor mistake can be the difference between victory and despair.
Another issue which may or may not have an effect on the game is the venue. Denver host this match-up as they had the best regular season winning record in the AFC. The stadium in which the Broncos play their home matches is known as ‘Mile High’ due to its altitude.
The thin air could have a big effect during the later parts of the game with players struggling to recover their energy because there simply isn’t enough oxygen to go around.
This may be the last time Peyton Manning and Tom Brady ever face off so it is not a match to be missed. Whether you are a fan of either team or not, you cannot beat watching two legends of the game clash in a game of this magnitude.