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Brady, Manning collide

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AFC Championship - New England (13-4 SU, 9-8 ATS) at Denver (14-3 SU, 10-7 ATS)
Sportsbook.ag Latest Line: Denver -5.5, Total: 56.5
Sportsbook.ag Opening Line: Denver -7, Total: 55

Tom Brady’s Patriots look to secure a sixth Super Bowl berth in the past 13 years on Sunday afternoon when they visit Peyton Manning’s Broncos seeking their first AFC Championship since 1998. Brady is 10-4 head-to-head versus Manning, including 2-1 in the postseason, but is just 2-4 SU all-time in Denver.

New England overcame a 24-0 halftime deficit in a 34-31 home win in Week 12 over the Broncos, as Brady threw for 344 yards and 3 TD, while Manning threw for a season-low 150 yards and 2 TD. But the story of that game was turnovers, as the Patriots lost fumbles on each of their first three drives, but Denver committed four turnovers to let New England back into the game.

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The Pats are red-hot, having won their past three contests by an average of 23.0 PPG, but they are just 2-6 ATS (4-4 SU) on the road this year. The Broncos have also won three straight games by an impressive 17.0 PPG, and are 5-3 ATS (8-1 SU) at home this season.

Both teams have favorable betting trends for Sunday, as the Patriots are 20-8 ATS (71%) as an underdog of 3.5 to 9.5 points, and 25-10 ATS (71%) versus excellent passing teams (260+ pass YPG) under head coach Bill Belichick. But Denver is 15-5 ATS (75%) as a favorite of 3.5 to 9.5 points, and 12-4 ATS (75%) versus poor passing defenses (235+ passing YPG allowed) over the past two seasons.

Both teams are dealing with significant injuries. New England LB Brandon Spikes (knee) is out, while P Ryan Allen (shoulder) and rookie WRs Aaron Dobson (foot) and Kenbrell Thompkins (head) are all questionable.

For the Broncos, they lost CB Chris Harris (knee) for the season, and three other members of the secondary are also hurting -- S Duke Ihenacho (concussion) and CBs Champ Bailey (shoulder) and Kayvon Webster (thumb) -- but all three are expected to play on Sunday.

Starting with the comeback win over Denver in Week 12, the Patriots offense has been rolling with 33.3 PPG on 419 total YPG in their past seven games, where they've gone 6-1 SU (4-3 ATS). While in the past this offense was mostly due to QB Tom Brady throwing the football, the Patriots have considerably more rushing yards (214 rush YPG) than passing yards (153 pass YPG) during their three-game win streak.

The man mostly responsible for this improved ground game is RB LeGarrette Blount, who has rushed for 431 yards on 64 carries (6.7 YPC) and eight touchdowns over the past three contests. Blount lost a fumble on his second carry of the game against Denver in Week 12 and did not touch the ball for the remainder of the contest, but he will need to be an integral part of this offense for his team to win on Sunday.

New England knows it cannot be one-dimensional against what has been a strong Broncos run defense, and Brady threw all over Denver's subpar secondary on Nov. 24, completing 34-of-50 passes for 344 yards (6.9 YPA), 3 TD and 0 INT. Brady is now 5-6 with 7.4 YPA, 23 TD and 8 INT all-time versus the Broncos, including 7.8 YPA, 11 TD and 7 INT in six trips to Denver. WR Julian Edelman and RB Shane Vereen were Brady's main targets in Week 12, combining for 17 catches, 170 yards and 2 TD in that victory. Edelman has been outstanding all season with 111 receptions for 1,140 yards and 6 TD in his 17 games, racking up 59 catches for 640 yards and 4 TD in his past seven contests.

The New England defense has had its problems throughout the season (374 total YPG allowed), which includes 244 passing YPG on 6.6 YPA, and 130 rushing YPG on 4.4 YPC. But the unit has allowed only 21.2 PPG this season, and just 16.3 PPG during its three-game win streak, which is helped greatly by its eight takeaways during this stretch. But they shouldn't expect the Broncos to turn the football over another four times like in their last meeting.

Denver has committed only five turnovers in its six games since losing in New England. Although QB Peyton Manning threw for a mere 150 yards in that defeat, with no receiver gaining even 50 yards, the Broncos were still able to amass 430 total yards on offense, compiling 280 rushing yards on 48 carries (5.8 YPC). RB Knowshon Moreno had 224 of those on 37 attempts (6.1 YPC), but he hasn't been great since that super-human effort, rushing for just 296 yards (3.8 YPC) in the past six games combined.

Manning has relied on four main pass catchers this season in WRs Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker, and TE Julius Thomas, who was injured for the game in New England. Julius Thomas led the team with 76 receiving yards in last Sunday's 24-17 win over San Diego, while Demaryius Thomas and Welker scored the touchdowns. Welker, who played with the Patriots for six seasons, managed just four catches for 31 yards against his former team in Week 12 and has not reached 100 yards in a game all season.

Manning improved his career playoff record to 10-9 last week, while increasing his postseason stats to 5,488 passing yards (7.6 YPA), 33 TD and 22 INT. These numbers are similar to what he's done in 15 career games versus New England (5-10 record), where he has 4,225 passing yards (7.2 YPA), 31 TD and 20 INT.

But Manning should have more faith in his defense that has been playing at a very high level over the team's three-game win streak, holding opponents to 14.7 PPG and 251 total YPG. That's a huge improvement from what the Broncos gave up in their first 14 games of the year (26.6 PPG and 372 total YPG). Denver has been especially stingy against opposing rushers during the win streak (72.0 YPG on 3.4 YPC), and has the ability to slow down the Patriots suddenly potent ground game. But since forcing three fumbles against New England on Nov. 24, the Broncos have totaled just six takeaways in the past six games combined.

  
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