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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Broncos vs. Patriots bigger than Brady vs. Manning XVII

New England heads to Mile High City to battle history and a Broncos defense more so than duel it out with a fading legend Peyton Manning.

Leading up to the Patriots impressive effort in beating the Chiefs in the Divisional Playoff last Saturday in Foxborough, Bill Belichick noted that his team had a "good week of preparation" and that "everything is pointing to us being at our best" against Kansas City.

A couple days later practice preparation turned into game day success in the 27-20 win, a resurgent passing offense leading the way to this week's AFC Championship Game.

But just hours before he and his team boarded a charter flight for Denver Friday, Belichick was far less committal to the work done in Foxborough leading up the battle with the Broncos in the Mile High City.

"We'll see," Belichick responded when asked how his team's preparation was this week.

Ready or not, the Tom Brady's Patriots (13-4) will face Peyton Manning's Broncos (13-4) Sunday afternoon at Sports Authority Field at Mile High at 3:05 ET on CBS.

Way back in the first meeting in 2001, few could have imagined the heights that the rivalry between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning would reach. For more than a decade, the future Hall of Fame quarterbacks have dominated the championship conversation in the AFC while simultaneously rewriting the NFL record books. Here's a game-by-game look at the best QB rivalry the world has ever seen. *silver game numbers indicate playoff games

Brady vs. Manning XVII pits the two greatest quarterbacks of the generation in one final chapter of their historic rivalry, appropriately a spot in historic Super Bowl 50 on the line.

But in so many ways the game is about oh so many things other than the quarterbacks. Denver is a team guided as much by its No. 1 defense and running game as it is by its aging quarterback who was actually a spectator in the Broncos overtime comeback win over the Patriots earlier this season.

The Patriots limped into the postseason through injuries and roster management, but then passed their way to victory against a Chiefs defense that was also supposedly a formidable unit.

Brady now has his top targets - tight end Rob Gronkowski and slot receiver Julian Edelman - back making plays and making the aerial machine go. But Brady knows as well as anyone that Denver is a tough place to play thanks to its crowd and elevation, while the Broncos defense is a tough group to succeed against.

"I think it's all those things," Brady said of factors in his history of struggles in Denver. "The level of competition and the quality of their players and coaches is what makes it a great team and a great organization. They've been that way for a long time. So, they have a great tradition there and we've played a lot of good Bronco teams. [We've] beat them a couple times, but they've beat us most of the time, so I'd like to get to that No. 3 in the win column this weekend."

A third win, coming in the Patriots record-tying fifth-straight AFC Championship Game, would put the defending champs back in the big game for the seventh time under the leadership of Belichick and Brady.

But past trips to Denver, past playoff games and even last weekend's one-score win over Kansas City declare that it likely won't be easy. Brady and many other Patriots have been in this spot before, having found both success and failure.

In many ways, though, experience goes out the window when the ball is kicked off and the only thing that matters is the execution at hand.

"The only thing that's going to matter is those three hours on Sunday," Brady concluded. "Talking about what we're going to do, or thinking about what we're going to do, I think that's all part of your preparation, but it's going to come down to how well we execute on Sunday. You may not have any experience - Malcolm Butler didn't have any experience in a Super Bowl last year - and won the game for our team. So, whoever is called upon has to go out and make the play at that particular moment, and if you make great plays, you've got a great chance of advancing. If you don't, you'll be watching in two weeks."

Patriots Football Weekly's Andy Hart counts down his 'Top 10' players to watch during the Patriots AFC Championship game against the Denver Broncos.

Here are plenty of things to keep an eye on beyond just the two Hall of Fame quarterbacks as the Broncos and Patriots fight it out Sunday afternoon with a spot in Super Bowl 50 on the line: 

Mile High history - As intangible a factor as it is, New England's history in Denver might be the scariest thing the team faces this week. (Although some fans are more worried about the Ed Hochuli-led crew of officials!) As Brady mentioned this week, he and his Patriots have not made out very well in the Mile High City. Brady is 0-2 in playoff games on the road against the Broncos, including a loss in the AFC title game following the 2013 season. He also has four regular season losses in Denver, 2-6 all time overall. Regardless of the details of how things played out, Denver earned the right to the No. 1 seed and to host the title game through the regular season. In many ways, that might be the most significant factor in this game. But in reality history can't do anything this Sunday. The Patriots flew to Denver a day early to avoid East Coast weather and to get settled sooner for a 1 o'clock local kickoff. Execution is far more important that game location. Still, it's also hard to forget the losses for New England in Denver under the direction of Brady and Belichick, against a variety of different Broncos teams, coaches and quarterbacks.

Run defense must step up - Belichick preached to his team this week that Denver had rushed for more than 100 yards in a game 10 times this season and ended up victorious in nine of those contests. Maybe the best rushing day for the Broncos during the regular season was against New England, churning out 32 carries for 179 yards , most allowed by the Patriots this season. The Patriots run defense finished the year ranked No. 9 in the league. It was solid for the bulk of the second half of the season. But, it wasn't great last week against a Kansas City team that also piled up 32 carries to total 135 yards. That was exacerbated by injuries at the linebacker position that sidelined Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Jerod Mayo at various times. Mayo landed on IR, but Collins (back) and Hightower (knee) are Questionable after being limited this week in practice. Hightower didn't finish the regular season meeting and Collins was sidelined that day as well, so having those two on the field at any level of health should aid in slowing down the C.J. Anderson-led rushing attack. Manning is the star in Denver, but Gary Kubiak clearly wants to run the ball, as the Broncos did 33 times in last week's win over the Steelers. New England's defensive tackle rotation led by Alan Branch, Akiem Hicks and Malcolm Brown needs to step up against the Broncos zone-blocking run scheme and also not wear down as the game wears on in the thin air. If the Patriots can keep the Broncos run game in check it will be a huge first step toward victory as Manning hasn't shown the ability to carry a team through the air, even thin air, in a long, long time.

11+12+87=7+7+7… - There is no question the return of Edelman gave the Patriots quick passing attack a big boost last Saturday against the Chiefs. So, too, did the fact that Gronkowski was once again used in the middle of the field where he has done the bulk of his damage over his career. The combo helped Brady look like Brady again after a struggling close to the regular season. But the Chiefs pass defense was less than impressive, and Denver brings what is the No. 1 pass-defending unit to this game. A lot of the Broncos success in coverage could lie with the health of No. 1 cornerback Chris Harris. The rising star has been dealing with a shoulder injury that will, according to John Elway, leave him as a game time decision. If he's out of action or can't play to his usual high expectations, it will be a big boon for the visiting passing attack. Harris is probably the only guy who can match up with any reliability with Edelman. If that job falls to Bradley Roby, it's a matchup Brady may look to take full advantage of. It also bears watching how the Broncos decide to deal with Gronkowski, other than targeting his knees when they tackle. There is always the chance they use big cornerback Aqib Talib in the matchup, with some help. There is also likely to be some linebacker and safety coverage thrown at No. 87. But if he plays like he did against the Chiefs, it may not matter. The Patriots passing attack was rejuvenated last week. One area the group could target is yards after the catch, an area that Pittsburgh found success with in the losing effort. Either way, this is a battle with statistically the best pass defense in football for a Patriots passing attack that's now healthier and ready to lead the offense.

No Miller time in Coors country - Last week's impressive performance by the entire offense and the offensive line has made people forget the pass rush concerns that had been so prevalent. The combination of the quick passing attack, improved offensive line play, the return of Sebastian Vollmer and a hobbled Chiefs front resulted in a game where Brady was not sacked and was hit just once. The Broncos have a diverse pass rush that will test the entire protection plan again. While Denver didn't get a ton of pressure on Ben Roethlisberger last week, the group did have 52 sacks during the regular season. That attack is led by Von Miller, who had a team-high 11 sacks in the regular season, but five guys had five or more sacks. DeMarcus Ware didn't play in the regular season contest, but he's back ready to test Brady and Co. Miller has a history of getting to Brady, seemingly getting a big hit on No. 12 each time they face off. The Patriots will do some scheming to get guys like Miller and Ware in coverage at times. But they also must block better and deal with the likes of Derek Wolfe, who was an issue in November. Brady admitted it will be all silent counts in the hostile Denver environment and that he can't make as many adjustments as he would in a home game. Regardless, keeping 12 upright and feeling good is the first key on offense, however that comes about.

Turnovers - Turnovers are key in every game. They close the gap for underdogs. They lead to blowouts for favorites. They swing games and certainly can decide who ends up in the Super Bowl. The Patriots have played mostly clean on offense for most of the year, but have certainly gotten their share of bounces in recent weeks. Giving the ball to Manning and the Broncos extra times could give them the boost they need offensively, even if they're only kicking field goals. In fact the Broncos probably flat out need a couple turnovers if they are going to have a chance in this one. And we all remember what happened when the Patriots led 21-7 in the fourth quarter in Denver in the regular season before a Chris Harper muffed punt ignited the home squad's comeback and eventual win. Or, more recently, we saw how a Steelers late fumble landed the Broncos in the AFC title game this week. Turnovers win and lose, especially in the postseason.

Prediction - The Patriots are the better team, even if they are technically the lower seed. They have the better quarterback and far better coach. Even their weaker side of the ball, the defense, compares favorably to the Broncos weaker side, the offense. The only real reason that I can seem to muster up to pick Denver would be the history of New England playing in the Mile High City. That's simply not enough to sway my decision. More likely, New England's resurgent passing attack will get the job done against a fading Denver defense. More likely, the Patriots will be good enough on run defense and will avoid the turnovers, the only two factors on the field that could really turn the game the Broncos way. More likely, Gronkowski will run through Denver's low tackles and Brady will be fired up to exorcise his Denver demons. Put it all together and I see a game somewhat similar to last week's win over Kansas City. It will be somewhat in control, but far from a blowout. It won't be easy, but it will be direct. It will be a Patriots 27-13 win to advance to yet another Super Bowl and a chance to defend its title. The Drive for Five rolls through Denver on the way to Santa Clara.

What other things will you be watching for in this Sunday afternoon in the AFC title game? Let us know with a comment below!

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