EDITOR'S NOTE: This week, independent analyst Andrew Mason will take a closer look at five players to watch in this Sunday's AFC Championship Game. Fourth on the list: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --The mention of the name "Tom Brady" doesn't require any adjectives. The same thing can be said for Peyton Manning, which helps make Sunday's game arguably the most anticipated conference championship in recent NFL history.
And frankly, what can be noted about Brady that has not been written before?
But even though "Manning vs. Brady" is the marquee matchup, it's an inaccurate assessment of what looms Sunday. Unless one or the other stuns their teams, onlookers and the entire football-watching nation by lining up on defense, Manning will not face Brady, or vice versa.
Brady will face a Denver defense that had allowed just 27 points in 11 quarters until leaking 17 points in the fourth quarter last Sunday. In Weeks 1-15, the defense allowed 24.6 points per 60 minutes; from Weeks 16-17 and through the first three quarters last Sunday, that average dropped to 9.8 points per 60 minutes.
Much of that is due to the Broncos' success at disguising their pass rushes, to supplement an injury-transformed front four with blitzes. But Brady is one of the finest quarterbacks in league history at identifying pressure before it arrives, and is rarely rattled.
Brady has thrown for less than 200 yards in three consecutive games, but the Patriots won them all. They didn't need big numbers from Brady, not when their ground game was at its most effective in years.
So key could rest in takeaways. That sounds like a plan, but takeaways are difficult to procure from the unflappable quarterback. Nevertheless, the Patriots have lost all four times the last two seasons when Brady had a negative interception-to-touchdown margin, including in last year's AFC Championship defeat to Baltimore.
All four of those occasions, Brady had a margin barely in the negative: minus-1 each time. But the 0-4 mark in those games offers a stark contrast to the 26-5 record in all other games in that span.
Thus, the Broncos could take some chances in pressure and coverage. Those tactics might lead to some completions and long gains, but an interception or two is the best -- and perhaps only -- way to knock Brady a bit off-kilter, and force the mistakes that he's not going to make on his own.
"That's obviously our game plan. We want to hit him as much as possible and see if we can get to him," said Broncos defensive end Shaun Phillips. "A guy like that doesn't get rattled too much, but if we can keep the ball out of his hand and keep pressure on him, I think it's in our benefit."