AFC Playoffs Q&A: A super matchup

The significance of those numbers can't be underscored enough for two reasons. The first is that Miller is one of the best pass-rushers in football and his big plays were huge in the first meeting between these teams. The second is that such pressure is going to be critical to protecting that banged-up secondary. The Broncos don't have to put Brady on the ground consistently. However, they will need to make him feel their presence every time he drops back to pass.

8. What's the most important matchup in this game? New England's defensive backs versus the Broncos' receivers. Denver's offense has been dominant all season, but this is the first time since early November that all four of Manning's top targets -- Julius Thomas and wide receivers Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker -- have been on the field together. Welker's presence was especially significant Sunday, as he missed Denver's last three regular-season games while nursing a concussion.

It's no secret what this group can do, but the Patriots' secondary offers some interesting matchups. Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib has the size and speed to handle the 6-foot-3, 229-pound Thomas (who caught just four passes in that first game), but the real key for New England is the play of second-year cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. Though he's been hampered by injuries and off-the-field issues over the past year, he's also talented enough to shadow Decker or Welker.

Dennard had two interceptions in New England's win over Indianapolis, the first of which set up the Patriots' first touchdown. With him back at full strength -- and the improved health of other banged-up defensive backs like Devin McCourty, Steve Gregory and Kyle Arrington -- New England has some options to counter Denver's aerial attack. The edge goes to the Broncos on talent alone, but the Patriots know they can win some battles against this unit.

9. How much can we learn from the first meeting between these teams? Not much. New England may have dealt the Broncos their most baffling defeat of this season -- a 34-31 overtime loss -- but that game was so bizarre that it's impossible to draw many parallels to this AFC title game.

First off, Miller -- who scored on a 60-yard fumble return and forced another fumble that led to a second touchdown -- is lost for the season with a torn ACL. He played a huge role in the Broncos jumping out to a 24-0 halftime lead in that contest. The chance of Denver imploding in the second half for a second straight time also isn't likely. The Broncos committed three of their four turnovers in the final three periods, including one that involved defensive back Tony Carter inadvertently touching a New England punt in overtime that Patriots defensive back Nate Ebner recovered to set up the game-winning field goal.

Denver may have led the NFL in lost fumbles (16), but that was one of those games where the ball was bouncing all over the place. After what happened in that contest, ball security is the last thing that will be an issue here.

10. Who will be in the Super Bowl? Denver has been the popular pick all season, so let's stick with that today. Even if the Broncos won't admit it, they exorcised a major demon with Sunday's win. Last year's divisional playoff loss to Baltimore was the kind of defeat that can haunt a franchise for years and now it's officially gone.

The way the Broncos played San Diego -- dominating the Chargers through the first three quarters and then securing the victory with some clutch passing late -- proved that Denver can do whatever is necessary to win at this stage of the season. The Broncos are both focused and motivated and their hunger will be the difference in the latest chapter of Manning-Brady. This one is going to belong to Peyton.

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