Unconventional Preview: Barring a Manning miracle, Patriots should soar past Broncos

Tom Brady and the Patriots travel to Denver to play the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game. —AP

COMMENTARY

Welcome to Season 4, Episode 18 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, occasionally nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup that runs right here every weekend.

This is how it’s supposed to be, isn’t it? Patriots-Broncos, Brady-Manning 17, one more time for all the old times, with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake? Yep. It just seems right.

For a time this season, it seemed inevitable. The Broncos won their first seven games; the Patriots their first 10. Both teams dealt with attrition and lineup alterations. The Patriots lost running back Dion Lewis for the season, wide receiver Julian Edelman for seven games, and assorted important others for various lengths of time. And the Broncos briefly turned away from Manning and handed the reins to Brock Osweiler.

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But the Patriots’ core players surrounding Tom Brady returned to health. Manning got his job back. And the teams’ courses that had briefly diverged ended up converging in the end, just as it seemed they would at the beginning and through the middle of the season.

Ultimately, the only real surprise — a result of some late slip ups by the Patriots, who lost four of their last six regular-season games — is that the collision between the two best teams in the AFC will occur on the Broncos’ turf rather than at Gillette Stadium.

But the venue does not matter much. This is how it should be. Brady, Manning, Patriots, Broncos, with a trip to Super Bowl 50 at stake. The Patriots may lose, and they may win, but they may never be here again, at least not like this, and against this foe. Savor the moment, even if you expected it all along, even through the late turbulence.

Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let’s get this thing started …

THREE PLAYERS I’LL BE WATCHING NOT NAMED TOM BRADY OR PEYTON MANNING

Von Miller: It cannot be coincidence that the six teams with the most sacks in the league this season all made the playoffs, with the Broncos (first, 52), Patriots (second, 49), and Panthers (sixth, 44) among those playing on conference championship weekend. I suppose I could have named DeMarcus Ware or Derek Wolfe or any other defender on the Broncos’ top-ranked defense who has the capability of disrupting Brady’s best-laid plans before they can be put into action, but it was Miller who led the Broncos with 11 sacks. And he has what should be a favorable matchup, with inconsistent Marcus Cannon starting at right tackle for the Patriots. It’s imperative that Brady gets the ball out in a hurry against Denver’s pass rush. Julian Edelman’s return a week ago and his knack for getting open quickly in tight spaces helped immensely in limiting the Chiefs’ talented pass rush. The ball is gone in a hurry. But Miller is a monster who can get there in a hurry, and the Patriots need to make sure whatever plays he does make don’t become ones upon which the game turns.

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Dont’a Hightower: It’s simple: If Denver wins the game, a huge reason will be because they ran the ball with relentless effectivness. Peyton Manning is no longer capable of doing it with his arm: He threw eight more interceptions than touchdown passes (17 picks, 9 TDs) this season, and only Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles completed more passes to the opposing team this year (18 INTs to go with 35 TD passes in his second season). Manning had a 67.9 quarteback rating this year. Quarterbacks with a higher rating include Brian Hoyer, Blaine Gabbert, Matt Cassel, that Osweiler fellow who probably wonders why he’s not starting, and Johnny Freakin’ Manziel.

The only reasons Manning is generating any respect whatsoever right now are his distant-past accomplishments and his intelligence. The Broncos cannot count on him unless John Elway finds a way to sneak a Vortex Mega Flight into the game when Denver has the ball.

The Broncos must run, and when Hightower went down with an injury midway through the previous meeting, they more or less did so at will, averaging 8.4 yards per carry in the second half. Hightower is a wonderful player, but he’s had a tough time making it through entire games since he got hurt. With Jerod Mayo, who had played well against the run in recent weeks, out for the year, it’s more important than ever that Hightower — and to a slightly lesser degree, Jamie Collins — makes an impact through four quarters come Sunday.

Rob Gronkowski: A couple of Broncos linebackers no one outside of the Rocky Mountain time zone has ever heard of chirped about tackling Gronk low this week. Gronk responded on Twitter in a way that only Gronk (and maybe Charles Barkley) could get away with. What’s going to be far more interesting is discovering how he responds on the field. The Broncos employ the player, T.J. Ward, who unapologetically destroyed his knee in December 2013. In Week 12 this year, Gronkowski suffered what turned out to be a mild knee injury — it kept him out just a week, and I’ll pause here why you again thank the football gods for that. But the low, awkward hit from Broncos safety Darian Stewart looked like it might have ended Gronk’s season at the time. It’s human nature for all of that to be in the back of his mind. Fortunately on the football field, Gronk isn’t merely human — he’s as close to superhuman as a mortal athlete can be. The only way the Broncos are stopping him is by hurting him, and I’m betting on Gronk to be the one delivering the pain on Sunday. This is an important stop on his own personal vengeance tour.

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GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK

I don’t have one. I tried, because you know, I’m supposed to have one. But I don’t. Maybe I will after the game, especially if any of the conspiracy theories being generated by the more paranoid factions of Patriots fans become reality (referee Ed Hochuli is really NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in an inflatable striped shirt! The Patriots won’t get a call! Gronk will be called for pushing off nine times in the first half alone! Just wait!). And maybe that will happen; strange things do happen to this franchise in Denver.

(OK, mini-grievance: Champ Bailey admitting that he thought it was indeed a touchback when Ben Watson ran the length of the field diagonally to swat the ball away from him 10 years ago. Oh, now you admit it. Couldn’t be honest in the moment, Champ? Why, your name isn’t even Champ — it’s Roland! And you never were a champ, at least in the NFL. What a systematic pattern of deception with this guy. Typical Bronco behavior. )

But rather than complain about potential future slights this week I’ve spent my time anticipating. This could be a classic. Better, it could be a Patriots rout that sends Peyton Manning into retirement. Either way, the anticipation is supposed to be fun. Lighten up while you still can and stop worrying about how the Patriots might get screwed. Yeah, the league hates its model franchise. Nothing new there. It didn’t stop them last year, right?

PREDICTION, OR THE PATRIOTS SHOULD TAKE IT, EASY

I can’t tell you why for sure, but all week, I’ve been stuck straddling a strange juxtaposition. I’ve been very confident about the Patriots’ chances while also trying desperately and without much success to avoid being overconfident. I think the Patriots will win big. But I’m not sure I want to go into the game thinking that, you know? I’m curious if you feel the same way.

I don’t believe Manning can play anymore. He is a detriment, and if the game ends up in anyone’s hands, I expect the football will wind up in Malcolm Butler’s hands, or Devin McCourty’s or … well, you get it. But I respect Manning and what he has accomplished. I do. There would be a storybook quality to a strong performance that a lot of NFL fans would appreciate, and he has a damn good team surrounding him.

A Broncos win is not out of the realm of possibility.

But it is on the fringes of that realm.

Julian Edelman’s return instantly made the Patriots’ offense look like the one that averaged 35.5 points per game through the first seven weeks of the season, and not the one that was so unfamiliar and conservative late in the season. If they can do their thing — and they should be able to at least match the 24 points they scored in Week 12 — without turning the ball over and giving Denver excellent field position, it’s going to be impossible for the Broncos to keep up.

I know it’s tough to win there. I know Denver’s defense is fast and ferocious. But the Patriots are the better team. See you in Santa Clara, Goodell. The vengeance tour marches on, and the Patriots are coming to town singing that victory song. Patriots 31, Broncos 20.

Chad Finn can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.

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