FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- As Tom Brady's Patriots prepare to head to Denver for the AFC Championship Game against Peyton Manning's Broncos, the hype machine for Brady vs. Manning XVII is certainly in full effect.
But the reality is that the Patriots have plenty of other issues to deal with that are probably even more important than Manning's fading ability to lead a passing game.
As much as stopping Manning, New England needs to stop a Denver rushing attack that churned out 32 carries for 179 yards and two touchdowns in the Patriots' regular season overtime loss in the Mile High City.
The Broncos rushed 33 times in last weekend's win over the Steelers.
"You have to stop the run, definitely," defensive end and captain Rob Ninkovich said. "Very good football team, you have to respect every back that they have, they run hard. I think you have to definitely have a mentality of stopping the run.
"The fundamentals of basic football are run the ball, and defensively, stop the run. It's going to be a challenge. They're a good football team, they run most plays well and we just have to play well together up front."
Fellow co-captain Devin McCourty, the leader of the back end in New England, agreed and noted that it's a point that head coach Bill Belichick has driven home this week.
"It's huge," McCourty said. "I think Bill read off a stat today. I think it was 10 games where they rushed over 100 yards -- they've won nine of them. That's a great stat for an offense and I think it's big for us to go out there and play well and stopping the run because when they run the ball well they usually win.
"It's kind of a direct correlation for us that we've got to make sure we go out there, play well in the run game and I think that will set up the rest of our defense, but if they are able to run the ball and get five or six yards on a first down, move the chains on a second down, it will be a long day for us because they have a quarterback who can drive the field and make plays, make the right decisions to score points on us.
"I think we've got to try to get them behind and try to play good defense on first down and not let them just pound us and be able to pound the ball because I think we know with Peyton Manning, one thing he can do is throw the ball and get the ball out to all the dangerous receivers."
Offensively, New England's rejuvenated passing attack -- which didn't have wide receiver Julian Edelman the first time around, and saw tight end Rob Gronkowski carted off late in regulation in the loss -- must deal with Denver's No. 1-ranked defense.
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has a unit with impressive talent at all three levels, and in his decades facing off against the Broncos defensive coordinator Belichick has learned to expect anything and everything.
"Wade is a great coach," Belichick said. "He's one of the great defensive coaches in the league over the past, really 40-something years. And he does a great job. He does what he needs to do. If he needs to change, he'll change. If he doesn't need to change, he won't.
"But regardless of what he does, he stops people. He doesn't give up a lot of points. They turn the ball over. They play great situational defense. His defenses always play well. They're always well-prepared. They're hard to run against. They're hard to throw against. They turn the ball over, and they play smart, situational football.
"So he's got a lot of different tools in his bag. Whichever ones he decides to use, we've got to be ready for and deal with. So I'm sure he'll make whatever adjustments he feels like he needs to make, and they'll be challenging for us. They always are."
That said, even considering the various challenges Denver poses on both sides of the ball, Belichick did make it clear that anyone overlooking Manning's ability to lead his team to victory at this point given his limited arm strength and accuracy issues could be in for a surprise.
"Peyton is a great player," Belichick said. "We've had tremendous battles against him through the years. There isn't a player off our team that I have any more respect for than Peyton Manning, so his preparation, his consistency, his skills, I would never, ever, ever underestimate him under any circumstances."
Even Brady, who like Manning tries to downplay the individual battle, acknowledged that there is something special to it. Though he wasn't ready to get into comparisons with iconic sports rivalries like Bird vs. Magic or Russell vs. Chamberlin.
"I wouldn't compare it to any of those rivalries, but I think playing someone 17 times is pretty cool; especially someone as great as him," Brady admitted. "To play against those Peyton Manning-led teams, you know you've got to play 60 minutes and you're going to be in for a tough game.
"They're going to take advantage of opportunities that they get, so we're going to have to do a good job of taking care of the football, because you don't want to give it to these guys on a short field. So, it's going to be a big challenge for us. They present a lot of challenges on defense. They've got the best defense in the league; the best rush, the best coverage, one of the best teams against the run. So, they do a lot of things well, and certainly it's a huge challenge to go out there and beat them."
SERIES HISTORY: Fifth postseason meeting. Broncos lead postseason series, 3-1, and lead the regular-season series, 26-20. Patriots have won five of the last seven overall. Most historic meeting between these two teams was on Jan. 19, 2014, when the Broncos defeated New England, 26-16, in the AFC Championship Game.
GAME PLAN: The Patriots quick-throw, pass-first attack was back in all its glory in the win over Kansas City last Saturday. The return of wide receiver Julian Edelman and a more traditional use of tight end Rob Gronkowksi keyed not only the opening touchdown drive but the entire offensive approach. A similar plan is likely to be unleased in Denver, although the Broncos No. 1-ranked defense might put up more of a fight than the Chiefs did as they struggled in coverage. But with Chris Harris battling injury and Denver bouncing between its tradition man coverage and less comfortable zone looks, Tom Brady will be in attack mode in the light air. New England must protect at least long enough for Brady to get his job done, as the front did against a similarly dangerous Chiefs pass rush. After watching Pittsburgh hit big plays after the catch, look for Josh McDaniels to draw up some combination patterns and plays with an eye on similar post-catch success. That could include passing back James White working against the Broncos linebackers and safeties as the young back continues to show the ability to make big plays over the second half of the season. Brady threw the ball 42 times in the regular season loss in Denver and 42 times in last Saturday's win over Kansas City. With his top targets back healthy and making plays, look for the Patriots to throw the ball at least that often Sunday in the Rocky Mountains, as the ground attack will once again be a complement, at most.
Defensively, the Patriots primary focus will be stopping the running game. New England played well against the run most of the second half of the season, but the November trip to Denver was not one of those days. The Broncos ran 32 times for 179 yards and two scores, including C.J. Anderson's 48-yard game-winner in overtime. Denver ran 33 times last week in the win over Pittsburgh. The problem with the Patriots run defense is that the linebaker position has been littered with injuries to Jamie Collins (back), Dont'a Hightower (knee) and Jerod Mayo (shoulder), who is on Injured Reserve. That will put even more emphasis on the front line, especially rookie Malcom Brown and fellow defensive tackles Alan Branch and Akiem Hicks. If the Broncos can run, it will give Peyton Manning plenty of play-action chances. If the Patriots can make Denver one-dimensional, it's unlikely the Broncos' passing attack is ready to carry the day in a shootout with Brady. Matt Patricia's unit will do everything it can to take away the Denver run.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski vs. Broncos S T.J. Ward.
These players have history dating to Ward's low hit that sidelined Gronkowski with a torn ACL when the safety was with the Browns late in the 2013 season. The All-Pro tight returned to form with a furor in the Divisional Round win over the Chiefs with two touchdown catches. He remains the key to the Patriots passing attack and the Broncos must prove the middle of the pass defense, including Ward, can keep Gronkowski from unleashing one or more of his epic, post-touchdown spikes in the Mile High City on Sunday.
Patriots RT Marcus Cannon vs. Broncos OLB Von Miller.
Miller led the Broncos with 11 sacks during the regular season and has seemingly found a way to hit Tom Brady hard each time these two teams have met over the years. New England's offensive line is coming off a strong performance against the Chiefs and the Denver pass rush was quiet against the Steelers. Still, Miller is a dangerous foe off the edge while Cannon has had a less-than-stellar season trying to keep New England's meal ticket clean.