It's the matchup everyone wanted - the fans, the media, the NFL, and of course, the TV networks.
It's the old guard versus the new guard. The legend versus the phenom. The "master" against his "protege." It's the former keeper of the franchise facing off against the younger, cheaper option with upside and the promise of hope and future success.
Enough of that: it's Peyton Manning vs. Andrew Luck.
With the Colts practically guaranteed win against the hapless (in the playoffs, at least) Andy Dalton-led Cincinnati Bengals, the long-awaited and long wished for playoff matchup between Manning and Luck is finally upon us.
What is forgotten - as it usually is when two great quarterbacks matchup - is that they are just two pieces of a bigger puzzle (albeit important ones, of course). While their performances will no doubt be key for either team to win, there are plenty of other factors that will be vital in order for the favorite Broncos to advance to a second consecutive AFC Championship game, or for the underdog Colts to take the next step in their franchise's development.
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3 Why The Broncos can win
Let's get the obvious out of the way early - a vintage Peyton Manning performance is almost a given here, especially at home. But what else will the Broncos need to pull out a W on Sunday?
The first thing the Broncos will want to do is establish their revamped running game. They've had to go through several names this season, but they've finally found their answer in the backfield (at least in the short term) with C.J. Anderson. Anderson has been consistent, for the most part, and at times stellar - he had back to back 160+ yard games in Weeks 12 and 13, and finished the final three weeks of the regular season with 85, 83, and 87 yards rushing. The Broncos don't need Anderson to go off for 150 yards and two scores for their offense to be successful - they just need him to be productive enough to keep the Colts defense honest and on their toes, so that Manning can work his magic (specifically in the play-action game) without having to worry about loaded-up defensive backfields or heavy pass-rushes.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Broncos also have the advantage not only due to the overall talent of the unit, but also because the Colts don't have much of a running game to speak of. Dan "Boom" Herron is a nice story, but he started the year as the backup-to-the-backup. Injuries and underwhelming performances by Trent Richardson have given Herron a shot, but he's not going to scare any defense - let alone this Broncos unit.
With that in mind, the Broncos will be able to focus on stopping Andrew Luck by unleashing Von Miller (14 sacks) and DeMarcus Ware (10 sacks), while also having the luxury of a loaded defensive backfield that boasts names like Aqib Talib, Rahim Moore, Chris Harris, and T.J. Ward. Despite all the good Andrew Luck can do from the quarterback position, he's shown to have a penchant for turning the football over - his career playoff touchdown to interception ratio going into this matchup is 7:8. So if the Broncos can hurry Luck into making bad decisions, the Broncos will set themselves up nicely for a good result.
2 Why the Colts can win
Again, we already know that the Colts will need a stellar showing from Andrew Luck to win this game - but what else needs to go right for the Colts to take down the mighty Broncos?
For starters, they'll need their wide receivers to ball out - they can't go into this game expecting Herron to explode and carry the offense. We know Luck will be able to get the ball to Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief, and one - or both - of his receiving tight ends, Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener; it's what they do once they have the ball in their hands that will be the key. 14 of the 40 touchdowns Luck threw during the regular season went for 30 yards or more, and a good chunk of those came thanks to his receivers making plays with the ball in their hands. There's a good chance the Broncos will just give the Colts the underneath routes to avoid having the top of their defence blown off by Hilton and Moncrief, so when Luck's wideouts do get the ball in their hands, they'll have to make plays with their legs.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Colts secondary will be in tough against the best collection of pass-catchers in the National Football League. It's bad enough when you have to contend with one of the top receivers in the league in Demaryius Thomas - it's worse when, even if you manage to contain him, you still have to worry about Emmanuel Sanders, Wes Welker, and Julius Thomas. The Colts have a top-notch corner in Vontae Davis - he'll probably be shadowing Thomas the entire game - but it will be up to the likes of Greg Toler, Mike Adams and Darius Butler to slow down the Broncos other receivers, while the linebacking corps tries to handle the matchup nightmare Julius Thomas creates. If they can slow down the potent Broncos passing offence (while keeping Anderson in check), they'll give themselves a legitimate shot to pull off the upset.
1 Who will win?
Despite all the "other" reasons given, we all know that at the end of the day, it's going to come down to the battle between the precision-passer against the gunslinger. Andrew Luck is probably sick and tired of living in the shadow of his predecessor, and would love nothing more than to end the discussion of whether he is better than Manning once and for all by taking him down on his own turf.
Alas, it will not be enough - the Broncos have home-field advantage (which also means they have a breathing advantage - as if they needed anything else to help them out), and one of the best rosters in the league; a rested and healed-up bunch that is on a mission to redeem last year's Super Bowl debacle - especially Manning.
The Broncos have already dispatched of the Colts once this year (a 31-24 victory in Week 1), and they'll find a way to do it again this Sunday - despite what should be a strong performance from Luck.
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