ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- **And so the AFC comes down to two.
Two teams strongly acquainted with one another, two teams led by quarterbacks with storied careers – and two teams intensely determined to earn a berth in Super Bowl XLVIII.
For the Broncos, there is no mistaking the Patriots team that they will go toe-to-toe with on Sunday – or the track record that New England carries into the game. It's the Patriots' third-consecutive trip to the AFC Championship Game – and, as Head Coach John Fox was quick to note in his press conference on Monday, it's a New England squad that raises the bar for an opponent every time they take the field.
"They're a challenging team to prepare for anytime," Fox said. "Last year, this year."
The initial meeting between the teams on a frigid November night at Gillette Stadium provided one of the most thrilling contests of the NFL regular season, as the Broncos raced out to a 24-0 halftime lead before the Patriots rallied furiously in the second half. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady guided his team to 31 consecutive second-half points as New England stormed back to take a 31-24 lead in the fourth quarter – completing a comeback that Broncos safety Mike Adams said reflected a lack of composure by the Denver defense.
"We never settled down," Adams said. "We never said, 'Okay, don't worry about it. It's Tom Brady. They're going to score. They're going to get theirs. They're going to make their plays. Let's go. Now, we've got to shut them up. We've got to shut them down a little bit.' And we didn't do that."
The Broncos turned in a comeback of their own, however, as quarterback Peyton Manning guided the offense on a game-tying 80-yard touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter. As regulation melted into overtime with the game deadlocked at 31, the two teams traded possessions to no avail. Ultimately, the Patriots made one more play than the Broncos down the stretch – recovering a fumbled punt return at the Denver 13-yard line that set up Stephen Gostowski's game-winning, 31-yard field goal with 1:56 left in overtime – as the Broncos' hopes for a victory were swept away into the blustery New England night.
"That's something New England does very, very well – they play 60-minute football and they play sound, fundamental football," wide receiver Eric Decker said. "Obviously we did a good job of taking a lead early, the defense played outstanding and we didn't finish."
Not capitalizing on that lead and allowing the Patriots to creep back into the game – just as the Chargers nearly did in the Broncos' 24-17 win in the AFC Divisional Round – now serves as one stern reminder of what the Broncos cannot afford to do when the teams take the field again Sunday.
"That was a hard lesson learned throughout the year," Decker said. "I thought we've had a couple of those this year. We faced a lot of adversity and when you look at this week, you have to capitalize and make sure you minimize all mistakes throughout the game. We had a couple yesterday – a couple myself – I think those things you have to take a hard look at and make sure you don't let that happen against a good team like New England."
"A team like that, that has been behind before and has plenty of comebacks and has had success plying from behind – we just have to learn to put teams away and finish," defensive tackle Terrance Knighton added. "That's something that we can improve on from the game yesterday. We watched that today to see how we can improve and try to get better each week."
Preparing for the Patriots also means readying for the challenge of facing Brady – who completed 34-of-50 passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns in the first meeting between the teams, and whose 18-career postseason wins are the most in NFL history.
"The things that Tom Brady has accomplished – it speaks for itself," linebacker Paris Lenon said. "He is right up there in that conversation when you talk about the best. We have one of those on our team as well. So, it is a big challenge. It is a big challenge going up against a guy that is that good of a player. He can hurt you. We have a lot of studying and a lot of work to do this week."
In the Patriots' 43-22 win over the Colts in the Divisional Round, however, it was not Brady, but instead the Patriots' ground attack – led by running back LeGarrette Blount's 166 yards and four rushing touchdowns – that gashed the Indianapolis defense for much of the game.
"I saw some of the Indianapolis game on television and they ran the ball a lot," Lenon said. "If that is there approach, that is something we have to prepare for. You have to prepare for everything. Whether they run the ball a lot or whether they decide to throw it, you just have to be prepared for anything."
Being prepared to stop such a potent ground attack – New England finished the game with 234 rushing yards – is something that Knighton circled as a key to leaving Sports Authority Field at Mile High as a victor on Sunday.
"That's what it's about in the playoffs – just running the ball and playing solid defense," Knighton said. "Whichever team can stop the run and whichever team can run the ball will win the game."
Still, he was quick to note that the challenge in defending the Patriots lies in being prepared to face an offensive outburst that can come from all fronts.
"They have capable receivers and their quarterback is elite," Knighton said. "They'll have some kind of wrinkle, they'll have something. Whoever is in there, they're expecting them to make plays so it really doesn't matter who is out there."
"We'll have our hands full and this is going to be a battle," Adams added, citing Patriots receivers Julian Edelman – as well as running back Shane Vereen – as key threats in the passing game. "I'm prepared for it."
It's a challenge that is unmistakable – with the height of the stakes on the line undeniable – but also a challenge that these Broncos are eagerly anticipating, one that will give them the opportunity to show what they are truly made of.
"We get to go to the Super Bowl if we win, I think that is enough on itself," Lenon said. "But to play a team that's been there the last three years, that does it consistently – this is going to be a challenge for us and we want to know where we're at as a football team. When you play such a good consistent team you find out a lot about yourself and I think that's what we're looking forward to Sunday."