Sunday, January 19, 2014

My pick: Broncos over Patriots in AFC Championship game

This morning I have a feeling of excitement I've only had five other times in my life - the anticipation of attending an AFC Championship game in Denver.  I will get to my prediction on today's game in a bit.  First a brief look back at those other AFC Championship games:

January 1, 1978: Denver 20 Oakland 17
Whatever happens today, it will not top this game in terms of what it meant to the Broncos franchise and to the city.  A first time playoff team, the Broncos had beaten the powerhouse Pittsburgh Steelers the week before and faced another tall test in the defending Super Bowl champion Raiders.  "The Broncos are going to the Super Bowl!!!!" was long time Bronco announcer Bob Martin's call as the final seconds ticked off the clock.  This game was the best sporting event I ever attended in Denver.

January 17, 1988: Denver 38 Cleveland 33
A rematch of the historic "Drive" game of the year before, this high scoring affair had its own drama at the end when Cleveland's Earnest Byner fumbled as it appeared he was going in for the tying touchdown in the final seconds of the game.  I was in the South Stands and had a clear view of the fumble - the transition from impeding doom to exhileration among the bronco fans in the stadium was something I'll always remember.

January 14, 1990: Denver 37 Cleveland 21
The only easy victory of the AFC Championship games played in Denver, this game did not have the drama of the previous Broncos/Browns title matchups.

January 17, 1999 Denver 23 NY Jets 10
The Jets were ahead 10-0 in this game in the 3rd quarter before the Broncos stormed back with 23 straight points to win going away.  On a very windy day in the last playoff game played at the old Mile High Stadium, this one was tense for more than one half of the game before John Elway and Terrell Davis got it in gear in the second half.  Current Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was the Jets defensive coordinator that day.

January 22, 2006: Pittsburgh 34 Denver 17
The only AFC Championship loss at home for the Broncos, this game was the reverse of the 1990 game.  Pittsburgh raced out to a 24-3 lead in the first half and the Steelers were never challenged.  Many Bronco fans rate the 1996 season Jacksonville playoff loss as the worst home loss in franchise history.  I disagree - I think it was this game.  In 1996 I doubt the Broncos would have won the Super Bowl as they would have faced a Green Bay team at its peak under Brett Favre.  If the Broncos had beat Pittsburgh I am confident they would have won the Super Bowl against an overmatched Seattle team as the Steelers did two weeks later.

On to today's game.  I'm confident the Broncos will win.  The weather will be good (high in the 60's with little wind) - perfect for Peyton Manning and the Broncos pass oriented attack.  Manning has all his weapons for this game (they didn't have Julius Thomas for the first New England game, and Welker missed some games at the end of the season).  Losing Chris Harris is no doubt a blow to the Broncos defense but they've had all week to come up with a plan to compensate for that, not an in game decision like what happened against the Chargers.  Tom Brady historically has not played well in Denver.

I'd feel very differently if the game was in New England (before the season I predicted an AFC Championship game loss for the Broncos assuming the game would be at the Patriots' home field).  Of the previous 5 afc title games in Denver I was most confident the Broncos would beat the 6th seeded Steelers and their rookie quarterback in 2006, and least confident they'd beat the Raiders in 1978.  Both of those games did not turn out like I expected, so a Patriots win today would not be a total surprise to me.  But my gut tells me the Broncos are headed to the Super Bowl later this afternoon.

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