Todd: I’ve said it many times in this space, but it bears repeating.  As Patriots fans, we have truly been spoiled.

To wit, with the Pats making their tenth AFC Championship game appearance in the last fifteen years, no other NFL fan base has come close to seeing their team regularly play this deep into January. 

Need some perspective?  The Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Chiefs, Detroit Lions and Arizona Cardinals franchises all predate the Super Bowl era, and have combined to play in seven conference championship games over the last fifty years.  That even includes Bruce Arians’ Cardinals playing in the NFC Championship game on Sunday.

Speaking of the Chiefs—and the man who founded them—the Pats are back playing for the Lamar Hunt trophy once again because Tom Brady and the offense clicked for the first time in two months thanks largely to Julian Edelman’s return (10 catches, 100 yards).  It’s no coincidence the Pats are now 10-0 this season when Edelman is in the lineup, and managed to decisively beat the Chiefs despite having their offense on the field for only 22 minutes.

So now Brady and Peyton Manning’s teams go head to head for the 17th time in a rivalry that goes back to 2001.  Even though Brady is 11-5 all-time, the two are dead even in the postseason (2-2) and Peyton actually holds a 2-1 lead in the AFC Championship Game.  Heck, the last time Brady beat Manning in a playoff game was January 16, 2005, a 20-3 win in the divisional round at Foxboro, a game I not only attended but also became known as the game that gave birth to the ‘Peyton Manning face’ of defeat.

But for all the hype surrounding Brady-Manning XVII, this matchup feels different and not because it’s likely the last time these two will ever compete on the same field again.  Maybe it’s because these two future Hall of Famers are no longer competing on the same level, despite being less than 18 months apart in age.  At this stage of his career, Peyton is best suited to sing about chicken parm than he is rallying his team from two scores down in the fourth quarter.

The most telling stat of Manning’s decline is that Brady has thrown more touchdown passes this season on Peyton’s home field.  In the Pats’ November 29 overtime loss at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Brady threw for three touchdowns and no interceptions.  In six home games for Manning (he missed the Pats game due to injury) he has just one touchdown and eight interceptions.  That TD came back in October against the Minnesota Vikings on a 60 degree day in Denver, far from the expected weather on Sunday.

I think I’m going to stick with the like/don’t like format I used last week to preview this AFC Championship game, albeit with some tweaks.

Don’t like: Running back C.J. Anderson’s best game this season was in that November game against New England—15 carries for 113 and two touchdowns and will pose a challenge for the Pats defense.

Like: Jamie Collins missed that game in Denver, and Dont’a Hightower left early with an injury—both are expected back for Sunday’s game and should improve the Pats’ run defense.  Before Hightower got hurt that night, Denver ran 15 times for only 43 yards.  Have to think with Manning’s limitations that the Broncos will push to get their running game going.

Don’t like: Ed Hochuli will be Sunday’s game referee.  If you believe in NFL conspiracy theories (and as a Pats fan it’s hard not to), the Broncos are 7-0 in games that Hochuli has reffed dating back to 2000, while the Pats are only 3-4 in their last seven Hochuli games, including two games this season that saw the Pats get flagged nine teams in each game.  The reputation of ‘Guns’ Hochuli’s crew is to typically call more offensive pass interference penalties (watch out, Gronk) and fewer personal fouls (watch out, Brady).

Like: Hochuli will be working with a different all-star crew for this game than he did in the regular season, so perhaps some of the aforementioned tendencies won’t be as much of an issue.

Don’t like: The Brady/Belichick duo is only 2-6 lifetime in Denver, with those two wins coming against Danny Kanell in 2003 and Tim Tebow in 2011.

Like: Brady never had both Edelman and Rob Gronkowski on the field together in any of those eight games.  Let’s not forget the last time Brady and Manning played in Denver for the AFC Championship just two years ago, Brady’s first three pass completions were to Matthew Slater, Matthew Mulligan and Austin Collie.

Don’t like: The Patriots franchise is 9-20 all-time in Denver and 0-3 in the postseason (boy do I remember watching many of these losses in my youth—Mosi Tatupu never fumbles!).

Like: The Pats are 22-1 in their last 23 games when Brady, Gronk and Edelman have all played together (only loss was last year at Green Bay), and Brady is 4-0 lifetime against the Broncos when he has both those guys on the field with him.

Like: The Pats to win, but it’s never easy in that thin air.  Over a career where Tom Brady has accomplished just about everything, he still hasn’t won a game in Denver to put his team in the Super Bowl.  Don’t think that’s not weighing on his mind (and maybe those deflated balls, too).  Patriots 27, Broncos 24.

Briefly on the NFC Championship—Carolina played one brilliant half (and one lackluster half) in defeating Seattle last week while Carson Palmer won his first career playoff game thanks to Larry Fitzgerald’s brilliance and Aaron Rodgers not getting the opportunity to continue his brilliance in overtime (what a game that was as far as drama).  While the Panthers are the more complete team, I’m leaning towards an upset if Fitzgerald has another big game.  Cardinals 23, Panthers 21.

By the way, kudos to my co-blogger Mike on his perfect 8-for-8 start picking winners this postseason!

Mike: Thanks Todd...I have had some good luck picking playoff games this season. I'm hoping for a perfect bracket!

I'm not going to do a lot of analysis on this game, but I do want to touch on the location. All week, the experts have been saying that the Patriots should win this one, so why am I so nervous?

After all, we have the better QB, our offense is healthy and we have the experience on our side.

But that doesn't matter to me. It's Denver.

As a life-long Pats fan, I am so used to seeing bad things happen in that stadium with the stupid horse. I just can't get past it, I hear Denver and it makes me mad. You think I'm kidding? Two years ago, we had a family reunion in Denver, and I had a hard time enjoying the city because the Broncos have angered me so much over the years.

I know, I know, I have a problem. But when I see that stupid Denver Broncos horse, I get angry!

I really, really, REALLY hate that stupid horse!
Photo by: Tom Hauck/Getty Images

So, with that diatribe aside, I am nervous that history will repeat itself in Denver. But I have to be optimistic that the Pats will overcome the Denver curse and go on to the Super Bowl.

And how cool would it be for the Patriots to end Manning's career (and leave him with one fewer Super Bowl title than his whiny little brother Eli?). It's a hopeful pick, Pats win 24-20.

As for the NFC game, I didn't like what I saw from Carolina in the second half against Seattle last week. Arizona wins 31-21.

And before I go, I leave you with an exclusive look at what Peyton Manning will be doing after he loses the AFC Championship game.

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