AFC championship game preview: A matchup no one will want to pass up

There’s an epic NFL matchup here on Sunday afternoon.

Oh, yes, there’s also the rest of the AFC championship game between New England and Denver, which kicks off at noon and will be broadcast on CBS.

But Peyton Manning and Tom Brady will square off for the 17th time in their illustrious careers as star quarterbacks, a marquee matchup that will never feature both of them on the field at the same time.

The Patriots’ Brady is 11-5 in their head-to-head meetings, dating to Manning’s days with Indianapolis.

Brady might have the overall edge, but Manning walked away the winner the last two times they played and is 2-1 against the Patriots in conference championship games. What’s more, neither quarterback has beaten the other on the road since 2007.

“I think he’s an incredible player and any time you face that caliber of player — and there are a lot of great quarterbacks in the NFL; Peyton has been one of the best to ever play — you’ve got to be at your best,” Brady said. “You can’t play anything less than your best and expect to win, because he’s going to play well and he’s going to have that team playing well.”

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Old hat

The Patriots are playing in their 12th AFC title game, and their fifth in a row. They are 8-3 in their previous 11 conference title games.

Should New England beat the Broncos, it would make its ninth trip to the Super Bowl, an NFL record. Currently the Patriots are tied at eight appearances with Dallas and Pittsburgh. Denver has seven, San Francisco six.

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Second act

The Patriots beat Seattle in last year’s Super Bowl. Twelve teams have gone back to the NFL’s biggest stage after winning it all the year before. Of those 12 teams that made the return trip, eight won the Super Bowl

YEAR BOWL WINNER NEXT

1966 I Green Bay Won

1972 VII Miami Won

1974 IX Pittsburgh Won

1977 XII Dallas Lost

1978 XIII Pittsburgh Won

1982 XVII Washington Lost

1988 XXIII San Francisco Won

1992 XXVII Dallas Won

1996 XXXI Green Bay Lost

1997 XXXII Denver Won

2003 XXXVIII New England Won

2013 XLVIII Seattle Lost

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Fine whine

Clearly, the Broncos weren’t concerned with the prospect of providing bulletin-board material for the Patriots.

In an interview with “ProFootballTalk Live,” Denver linebacker Malik Jackson called Brady a “whiner” who “definitely throws temper tantrums.”

That came on the heels of fellow Broncos linebacker Antonio Smith telling reporters the same thing. Asked if the Patriots quarterback is a crybaby, Smith said (via the Colorado Springs Gazette): “That would be an accurate statement. I’ve never seen any quarterback look at the referee right after he gets sacked more than Brady.

“Every time he gets sacked he looks at the ref like, ‘You see him sack me? Was that supposed to happen? He did it a little hard. Please throw a 15-yard penalty on him. Get him fined.’¿”

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By the numbers

How the teams compare statistically. All stats are regular-season per-game averages, except for turnover differential, which is for the season (league rank in parentheses):

STATISTICS: NE | DEN

Points scored: 29.1 (3) | 22.2 (19)

Points allowed: 19.7 (10) | 18.5 (4)

Pass offense: 286.7 (5) | 248.1 (14)

Rush offense: 87.8 (30) | 107.4 (17)

Pass defense; 240.7 (17) | 199.6 (1)

Rush defense: 98.8 (9) | 83.6 (3)

Sacks: 49 (2) | 52 (1)

Penalty yards: 53.7 (9) | 66.4 (25)

Turnovers: +7 (7) | -4 (T19)

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Farmer’s pick

Typically, it’s not smart to bet against Manning or Brady. Thing is, Manning was only intermittently sharp against Pittsburgh in the divisional round and, although he has never been a high-velocity passer, all the zip is off his throws. With Denver cornerback Chris Harris banged up, Brady should have an easier time getting the ball out quickly and beating the Broncos pass rush.

PATRIOTS 30, BRONCOS 20

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