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Three Keys: AFC Championship Game

Posted Jan 19, 2014

Independent Analyst Andrew Mason breaks down his three keys to the AFC Championship between the Broncos and the Patriots.

DENVER -- It has been 2,918 days since the Broncos had an opportunity like this, to sit 60 minutes from the Super Bowl.

It seems like an eternity. It seems like the blink of an eye.

Sixty-three coaches have stalked the sidelines. Two-hundred seventy players have been on the 53-man roster, including 21 players who had a combined 49 Pro Bowl appearances during their Broncos careers, six starting quarterbacks, two Ring of Famers (Tom Nalen and Rod Smith), two with the same name (Brandon Marshall) and one on the list of this year's Hall of Fame finalists (John Lynch).

Broncos history has been written, and re-written again. There's been a postseason win in overtime, and a loss in double overtime.

Yet the time that has passed isn't much longer than the 2,554 days that separate today from the last time teams quarterbacked by Tom Brady and Peyton Manning collided in the AFC Championship. Each has gone back since then -- and won; Brady in January 2008 and January 2012; Manning in January 2010. But the two passers who will be forever connected haven't been linked in a game this big in two days short of seven years.

That's enough time for a dynasty to rise, fall and even rebuild. It's enough time for John Fox to build the Panthers back from .500 to having the conference's best record, move on to Denver, and quickly rebuild the Broncos to the AFC's best record two years in a row.

But it's enough time for everyone involved in Sunday's game to realize the rarity of the moment. It's Manning's fourth shot. But for many more, it's the only shot to date, and could be the only one.

"I’m ecstatic. It’s a one-in-a-lifetime deal," said safety David Bruton, who plays in this game for the first time.

Maybe it won't be that rare, but everyone on the field today will play like it is. The scarcity of this type of game demands it.

1. BE THE AGGRESSOR.

Whether it's with a well-timed blitz on defense or a fourth-and-two gamble or an attempt at a deep post on offense, this is not the moment to be timid. That bore itself out last week on third-and-17 against San Diego; instead of a handoff that would chew clock or force the use of a timeout, the Broncos passed -- and began their game-clinching march. They passed again on the following third down, and the result was the same: another completion, another first down.

"The difference between my wins and my losses in Super Bowls are the ones that are charging and not retreating -- and when we’re going ahead and we’re making it, we’re trying to win it on offense rather than retreating on the other side," said executive vice president John Elway. "So I was glad late in the game -- even after the third-and-17 -- we were able to throw the ball and get some more first downs."

The Broncos got to 13-3 and had the most prolific regular-season offense in NFL history for a reason: they were judiciously bold, often unafraid to go for it on fourth downs and willing to bet on the exquisite timing between Manning and his receivers to make plays, even when those targets were covered as well as can be reasonably expected. And in recent weeks since Von Miller's injury, they've held three consecutive opponents below 20 points -- and had shutouts after three quarters twice -- in part because they were willing to blitz and confuse opposing quarterbacks. They might have to temper that tendency a bit with Brady on the other side of the line of scrimmage, but they have no reason to lay back and let the action come to them.

"A championship is not given to you; you have to go win it," Elway said. "And that’s on both sides of the ball."

2. SOUND TACKLING.

The only way a linebacker or defensive back is going to bring down a 250-pound load like Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount is by solid form tackling. Going for the big hit is well and good, but modern rules prevent the second coming of the famous 1990 Steve Atwater hit on Christian Okoye, so the more prudent tactic is to wrap Blount up -- or at least slow his progress at the second level until help arrives.

Proper tackling is necessary all around. Patriots wide receivers Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman thrive on yardage after the reception. If the Broncos avoid missed tackles, they can limit this, and keep the Patriots' offense relatively shackled.

Do this, and the Broncos will limit yardage after contact and after the catch -- and could have a chance to extend their run of stellar defensive performances that dates back to Week 16.

3. MISTAKE-FREE SPECIAL TEAMS.

This was noted in this space last week after a series of costly plays in the regular season's final six weeks. Although the Broncos didn't make an error that cost them the game, the penalty on Trindon Holliday's 105-yard kickoff return and Eric Decker's stumble in the open field that cost him a touchdown showed what might have been.

"A lot of times, special teams never gets mentioned because of the way they kind of do things," said Rod Smith, the honorary captain who put in his share of time in the third phase during his years as a Bronco. "But special teams can be the difference in a game like this."

The fact that Holliday and Decker both showed breakaway capability is what could carry over from last week. The Broncos haven't had a touchdown on a kickoff or punt return since Week 4; their performance seven days ago offers hope that a breakthrough is close -- perhaps as soon as today.

"I feel like there is always some type of vulnerability within a unit. Somewhere, we might do something better than what they’re capable of blocking or covering or whatever," said Bruton, the special-teams captain. "We’re going to take advantage of whatever little nuances they may have up, or what they’ve been flawed with all season.

"We’re just going to go out there and have that attack mentality—go get it, go get it, play hard and balls to the wall."