AFC Playoffs Q&A: A super matchup


DENVER -- Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning knew the question was coming before he ever walked to the podium for his postgame news conference on Sunday night.

His team had just earned a 24-17 AFC divisional playoff win over San Diego, but the quarterback wasn't ready to talk about meeting Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in next Sunday's AFC Championship Game. This win, as Manning noted, had been too meaningful, an indication of how hard the Broncos had fought to be this close to the Super Bowl. So when a reporter asked Manning what was weighing on his mind, Manning couldn't resist the opportunity. "What's weighing on my mind," Manning said, "is how soon I can get a Bud Light in my mouth."

It was a well-timed line, one that drew plenty of laughter. It also was a sign of how relieved Manning had to be in the wake of this victory. It seemed as if the Broncos were capable of melting down for the second straight year in the playoffs as the final 15 minutes of this game played out with a Chargers rally. Instead, the Broncos made the plays they had to make to secure the win. In the process, they let the entire football-watching world know that this team has grown up plenty over the past year.

What Manning understood is that there will be ample time to talk about the Patriots. That game will be hyped all week because that's what happens whenever and wherever Manning and Brady collide. Next Sunday's game will be Round 15, with three of those meetings coming in the playoffs. Brady has won two of those contests, but each quarterback has claimed a victory in the AFC title game (Brady in 2003, Manning in 2006). Brady actually owns a significant advantage in overall head-to-head meetings, as his record is 10-4 when Peyton is on the other sideline.

But none of that really matters today. Along with being a matchup of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, this also is a meeting of teams that have battled through plenty of adversity all year.

"Tom Brady has been an outstanding quarterback for such a long time but next week's game is the Broncos versus the Patriots," Manning said. "I know there will be some individual matchups that will get headlines but it will be a battle between two good teams."

It also will be a matchup that will generate plenty of questions over the coming week. Here are the 10 most important:

1. Which team has the emotional advantage? As much as New England has faced adversity throughout this entire season -- from former tight end Aaron Hernandez being charged with murder to numerous injuries to Pro Bowl players -- the Broncos have endured more.

They've lost their own fair share of star players for the season (including outside linebacker Von Miller and left tackle Ryan Clady) while also watching Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey hobble through the worst year of his career with a lingering foot injury. Their head coach, John Fox, was sidelined for a month after he underwent heart surgery. Even though they'd never admit, they've also had to remember how painful last season was, when they were upset at home in a divisional playoff loss to Baltimore.

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