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Bet on it: Patriots will beat Broncos for the AFC crown

Posted by Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff  January 16, 2014 08:58 AM

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With all due respect to Dan Shaughnessy, he couldn’t be more wrong about what’s going to transpire in Denver on Sunday.

“The Broncos are going to beat the New England Patriots on Sunday,” the Globe columnist wrote this week. “Sorry, that's just the way I see it. I am not rooting for the Broncos. I am not into Satanic worship. Please do not kill my whole family. I am often wrong (remember the 2013 Boston Red Sox, destined for last place?) and hopefully for New England fans, I will be wrong again.”

Indeed, he will be.

That call is less of a hunch than it is a recollection, not so much Xs and Os as it is an acknowledgment of competitive fire. These aren’t your children’s Patriots, they’re more like the ones who utilized all their weapons en route to a trio of Super Bowl wins a decade ago. Despite losing a litany of players to injury, including Tom Brady’s most dangerous receiver in tight end Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots’ offense is as balanced as one could possibly imagine. For the first time in years, the Patriots aren’t dependent on the arm of Brady. Running back LeGarrette Blount has given this team a dynamic it hasn’t been privy to in some time, allowing Brady to go back to being what made him a three-time champ; being the best game-manager in the NFL.

The last time Brady failed to throw a touchdown pass in a playoff game, as he did in last weekend’s 43-22 win over the Indianapolis Colts, was during his team’s 23-20 win over Billy Cundiff and the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game two years ago. In 25 career playoff games, he’s failed to throw a touchdown only four times, all New England wins, including his first two career postseason games against the Oakland Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers.

That doesn’t mean the Patriots win if Brady doesn’t get a touchdown, but it speaks volumes about the supporting cast around him, the running game, and the cerebral superiority he brings to the gridiron. If Brady was more Joe Montana early in his career, he morphed into rival Peyton Manning not long after the 2006 AFC title game. Since that game, Brady is only 5-5 in the playoffs, 12-2 prior.

But a funny thing happened in losing Wes Welker to the Broncos, Aaron Hernandez to murder charges, and Rob Gronkowski to (another) injury. Brady was forced to recognize his remaining weapons, likely giving Julian Edelman a big payday in the process. Danny Amendola became a decent replacement for Welker, and he soon learned how to utilize Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins after some initial growing pains, not to mention sideline hissy-fits. For the first time in years, Brady’s favorite receiver wasn’t named Randy Moss, Welker, or Gronkowski. This season, he went by an all-too-familiar moniker.

The open one.

That Brady is a lot more dangerous than the one that has lost back-to-back Super Bowls.

But if Saturday’s win was indeed more geared toward the ground, perhaps Sunday’s game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High will add a mix of Brady vs. Manning that petered out in the last meeting when the Broncos continually insisted on running the ball. This is Manning’s moment in the sun, of course, another chance to prove he’s not a playoff wanna-be in search of his second Super Bowl win. But the absence of Denver cornerback Chris Harris , who left the win over the Chargers midway through the third quarter and is out for the rest of the year with a torn ACL, simply can not be discounted. With the absence of Harris, Philip Rivers and the Chargers put a scare into the Broncos, turning a 17-0 game into one decided in the fourth when San Diego put up 17 points. The Patriots can ill-afford to put themselves in that kind of hole, but the comeback spoke volumes about what Harris means to the Denver defense.

Denver allowed 1,626 yards on the ground during the regular season, seventh-best in the NFL. The Broncos allowed 4,070 yards in the air during the regular season. Only five teams allowed more.

But that’s not why the Patriots are going to win on Sunday, earning their seventh trip to the Super Bowl in franchise history. Just like it used to, the game is going to come down to Bill Belichick’s game plan, and the players’ execution of it from there. And the Patriots are more equipped to follow through on that philosophy than they have been in seven years.

Peyton will be left at the altar once again. Brady and company will hop the Acela to Manhattan in another week for another Super Bowl appearance.

Pats-49ers sounds about as good as it can get. But the Lamar Hunt trophy has to come first. And as of Sunday evening, it will be making a return trip to Foxborough.

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About the Author

Eric Wilbur is a Boston.com sports columnist who is still in awe of what Dana Kiecker pulled off that one time in Toronto. He lives in the Boston area with his wife and three children. Comments and suggestions for the best Buffalo wing spots are encouraged.

Contact Eric Wilbur by e-mail or follow him on Twitter.

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