The wait's almost over. It's Brady versus Manning. With two of the greatest QBs in history going head-to-head for perhaps the last time ever. Who'll triumph? Neil Harvey takes a closer look...
"Manning should find a way to do what he does best, which is manage the offense intelligently. If a blitz is coming, he'll often sniff it out. And expect lots of hard counts as he uses all his experience to get the defense to show their hand early"
New England Patriots @ Denver Broncos
Live on Sky Sports
You will read a lot of statistics, a lot of injury updates, and a lot of opinions in the build up to this game. So much so, that it may well become bewildering. So I'll try to keep this simple and give you my personal take - which is that I think this contest will be close, extremely close, overtime close.
This is being billed as the Denver defense against the New England offense. The Broncos ranked third best of 32 teams against the run during the regular season, and number one against the pass. So no arguments there. But the Patriots passing offense ranked fifth in the NFL, while their rushing attack was way down in 30th. Hmmmm. Certainly not as good as one might expect given all the hype.
Now I'll be the last to cast aspersions on Tom Brady. For me he's a legend. And I'd take him over Peyton Manning every day. Just personal choice. And to me he's looked as brilliant as ever this season. He's been hampered though by injuries to key receivers, meaning he's had to carry the team to some extent. But with Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski back in action, I'd argue you could now rate that Patriots passing attack as the best of the bunch.
By all accounts the Broncos stood off the Steelers receivers in their last game, wary of Pittsburgh's tendency to strike deep. There are many arguing though that this will be a different contest, with Denver looking to jam New England at the line of scrimmage.
And there's evidence to back that up. Pittsburgh led the league in big passing plays, with 21 of them in the regular season. The Patriots by comparison made just 12 completions of more than 40 yards. Edelman and Gronk are prolific catchers and will be dangerous at short to mid range. But Denver may well feel less worried about conceding from deep.
But that doesn't mean New England won't still move the chains. Julian Edelman is a master at finding space where there is none. And with Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr having aggrevated a shoulder injury last weekend, he may understandably be loathe to get too tight to the Patriots' most slippery receiver.
There's no doubt that Steven Jackson, or James White or whoever Bill Belichick comes up with to tote the rock for the Patriots, will struggle. But it shouldn't matter. Because Belichick is a master tactician who locates his opponent's greatest weakness and then targets it again and again and again. In this case, he looks likely to back his receiving corps against the Broncos secondary and look to cut them to ribbons with short to mid-range passes. And given Edelman's speed and Gronkowski's size, it would take a brave person to back against them.
So perhaps this match-up will be a close one after all. The Patriots have shown repeatedly that their lack of a running game isn't crucial to their game plan. And all they need to do is find one weak link, and focus on it repeatedly, in order to be effective.
I'll leave it to countless others to paw over the pros and cons of Peyton Manning's presence under centre. But suffice to say, this won't be the toughest outing of his career. Denver's mediocre passing attack goes up against an equally average Pats defense. The veteran should make some plays. And no doubt he'll throw some of those wobbly passes that are becoming increasingly common.
Above all though, Manning should find a way to do what he does best, which is manage the offense intelligently. If a blitz is coming, he'll often sniff it out. And expect lots of hard counts as he uses all his experience to get the defense to show their hand early.
To complement this, Denver can turn to a couple of solid running backs in Ronnie Hillman and CJ Anderson. Here, New England's defense has the edge on paper. But I must confess a strong liking for Anderson. He's been disappointing this season. And yet he's shown flashes of brilliance at times, especially in the cold. So if on his game, I fancy we could see CJ produce some devilish, slaloming runs.
When these teams met in Week 12, Denver won 30-24 at Mile High. Anderson scored two touchdowns and surpassed a hundred yards. And I think he can once again be the thorn in the Patriots' side. That game had several key protagonists missing on both sides though, mostly on offense, and so the result must be taken with a large pinch of salt.
Perhaps the most important stat for this game, as ever, will be turnovers. The Patriots for example are unbeaten in the postseason (15-0), under Belichick, when they've won the turnover battle. In the regular season, the Patriots had a +7 turnover differential, compared to the Broncos' -4. On average though, that's a difference of less than one turnover a game. And that says it all. That one pick or fumble could decide this either way.
And so back to the start. This looks painfully close to me. Therefore with Denver getting 3.5 points headstart on the handicap, I have no choice but to go with them.
I also like the look of overtime, which let's be honest, so would almost everyone else - from the fans, to the media, through to in particular the sponsors. So game on. And may the best team win...preferably in overtime.
3pts Denver (+3.5) to beat New England @ 1.845/6
Overtime to be played @ 15.0014/1
2pts CJ Anderson rushing yards to be over 52.5 @ 1.9620/21
CJ Anderson to score 1st/anytime touchdown @ 11.0010/1