Denver Broncos’ and Baltimore Ravens’ fans remember the scene all too well. The ball was on the Ravens’ own 30-yard-line with less than 50 seconds to go. On a chilly January evening in 2012, Peyton Manning and the Broncos were up 35-28. It was third down, and Baltimore was out of timeouts.
Joe Flacco received the snap at the 24-yard-line and backed up to set up a play. About three seconds go by as a scrum of defenders pushed into the pocket. Flacco stepped up, loaded his arm at the 25-yard-line, and heaved one down the right sideline.
Jacoby Jones was racing down the area, zooming past every Bronco defender. Around the Denver 25-yard-line, he turned around to the ball, cocked sideways a bit. Denver safety Rahim Moore had raced in from the far left to protect, but he couldn’t catch up to Jones. He jumped up and tried to get a finger on the pass.
But the ball was well over his head and past him. Jones caught it and cruised into the end zone to destroy a sure Broncos’ win and eventually knock Manning out of the playoffs.
Brady vs. Manning fans remember the pass too because it killed a seemingly inevitable AFC Championship Game clash between a Manning-led Broncos team and a Tom Brady-led New England Patriots team that seemed every bit as good as each other.
It should, because the closeness of the Patriots and the Broncos right now and their seemingly inevitable clash in this year’s AFC Championship Game is not like the Patriots and Broncos of last year, but their 2012 versions.
Through the National Football League’s first 13 weeks of the 2014 season, the Patriots and Broncos are practically looking at each other eye-to-eye. Two weeks ago, the discourse wasn’t like this, of course, as the Patriots were on a seven-game winning streak and the Broncos came off a 1-2 road trip not too long before.
But since the Patriots lost to the Green Bay Packers and the Broncos won in a surprisingly balanced run-pass attack against the Kansas City Chiefs, the teams’ strengths have started to resemble each other. They’re both 9-3 and have the top records in the AFC. They both are spectacular at home—6-0—and only seem vulnerable—3-3—on the road. They both wield offenses that top almost every other team in the NFL, as both have scored more than 350 points. And they both have much improved defenses, as the New England and Denver secondary is among the best in the league a year after they were holes in the teams.
And it does look inevitable that they will face off in the AFC Championship Game, wherever that may be. The Patriots and Broncos are by far the best teams in the AFC. The Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens, and San Diego Chargers are inconsistent and have lost some head scratchers. And the Indianapolis Colts got thumped by the Broncos and Patriots this season, and the Indy secondary is among the worst in the league.
Despite only a half-game difference between them and the Bengals, it’s not likely that New England and Denver will have to play in the Wild Card Round. So it’s probable that they will clinch the top two seeds in the conference once again, which, because of their dominance at home and dominance over the AFC, makes it unlikely that any other conference team will win at Gillette Stadium or at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in January.
So we know Manning’s and Brady’s teams look close in how they have performed and should play here on out. But that is a lot like how it went down in 2012.
Back then, just like this season, the Broncos and Patriots were almost as good as each other. They finished 13-3 and 12-4, respectively, which will likely be similar to the records the two teams will have after Week 17 this year. When it boiled down to the details when compared overall, neither team blew through the other on the stat line.
New England was clearly better offensively, as they scored 557 points compared to the Broncos’ 481, but that put them 1 and 2 in the NFL rankings in points scored. This season, they’re even closer, as the Patriots have only scored 17 more points than Denver.
Besides the Patriots, there was no team defenses dreaded facing more than the Broncos. Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno were a potent 1-2 rushing combo for the Broncos, eating up more than 1,200 yards together. That year, like this season, Denver had a multi-pronged receiving attack too, as Demaryius Thomas caught 10 touchdowns and Eric Decker hauled in 13.
But the Patriots in 2012 had multiple receivers they could rely on as well. Wes Welker (1,354 yards and six TD’s), Brandon Lloyd (911 yards and four TD’s), and Rob Gronkowski (790 yards and 11 touchdowns) blasted through almost every team that season. A multi-receiver core for Brady? Sounds a bit like the Gronkowski (910 yards and nine TD’s), Brandon LaFell (712 yards and seven TD’s), Julian Edelman (743 yards and two TD’s) core for Brady this year?
But it wasn’t only offense that links these teams through time. Defensively, the Patriots and Broncos resemble their 2012 counterparts too. That season, while they were the weaker offensive team, the Broncos made up for the gap on defense. In 2012, while the Patriots were middle-of-the-pack on defense, the Broncos were one of the best in the league. The Patriots allowed 331 points and Football Outsiders ranked them 15th in Defensive DVOA. The Broncos, however, gave up the fourth-fewest points in the NFL (289) and were fifth in Defensive DVOA.
Queue the 2014 comparison.
This season, New England is on-pace to allow 337 points and is 12th in Defensive DVOA. Denver? Well, they certainly won’t be as stingy in the point total as they were two years ago, but they are still in the top five in the NFL in Defensive DVOA.
In the end, the Patriots and the Broncos finished first and second in point differential in the AFC, respectively, in 2012. This season, they’re first and fourth, respectively. The end result in 2012 was that they had first-round byes, were the cream of the crop in the conference, and hosted weaker teams in the Divisional Round.
Take a look at the current standings.
It’s not at all like the 2013 story. The Patriots and Broncos finished 12-4 and 13-3 last year, respectively, and were the Brady-led Patriots team and the Manning-led Broncos team that actually faced off in the AFC Championship Game, but unlike this season the teams were not comparable. The Broncos were by far the better team.
New England’s offense last year was much, much—wait for another one—much weaker than Denver’s. While they were ranked third and first in points scored, respectively, the Patriots and Broncos were worlds apart on offense. Denver scored 162 more points and had four receivers with at least 10 touchdowns.
New England had, well, Edelman.
Edelman caught 105 passes and recorded six touchdowns, but their next best receiver was Danny Amendola, who only had 633 yards. Because of injuries to Gronk and no viable options beside Edelman, the Patriots had to plod their way to victory. They scored 30 points or more seven times; Denver did that 13 times.
Defensively, both the Patriots and Broncos had problems last year, finishing middle-of-the-pack in Defensive DVOA. Teams could still rock them with the long pass, and both gave up more than 300 points.
But the Patriots fell back on the road. They were even better than Denver at home, posting an 8-0 record at Foxboro, but they were 4-4 on the road and lost some strange games. At Cincinnati, they were held to just six points; they lost to the New York Jets in New Jersey; they were held to 20 points in Carolina, albeit losing on a controversial final play; and they lost to the Dolphins in Miami in December.
Even the games they won the road were often strange, though. The Patriots beat the Bills by only two points in Week 1, and they went back-and-forth in a close game with the Houston Texans, a team that had lost nine consecutive games. On the other hand, the Broncos only lost two games away from Mile High.
The point differentials (+207 for the Broncos; +106 for the Patriots) and the DVOA (32.7 percent for Denver; 18.9 percent for New England) told the story: the Patriots did not have the weapons or the success that the Broncos had. They just somehow made it to the AFC Championship Game to face Denver.
So those Brady vs. Manning fans check often. They look at how the Patriots and the Broncos play every week. They look at Brady and Manning, and the offense, and the defense, and then look back at 2012. They examine the standings and see where they stand compared to everyone else in the AFC.
Then they see the Ravens at 7-5—with an even better point differential than Denver—and still alive in the playoff picture.
They’ll just hope that similarity doesn’t result in the 2012 Brady-Manning ending.