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Insider

Ground game may decide AFC title

USA TODAY Sports

Here's a conservative prediction: If Peyton Manning plays two more full NFL seasons, he'll surpass Brett Favre for the most passing yards in NFL history (he's roughly 7,000 shy of the mark as of now).

Tom Brady is already the NFL's all-time leader in postseason passing yards with more than 6,000.

And yet, when the Denver Broncos host the New England Patriots on Sunday with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, all eyes will be on the rushing offenses.

Huh?

For context, it was in Week 12 that the Broncos rushed for 280 yards against the Patriots, which wasn't quite enough to earn a victory but reinforced that New England's run defense was in the midst of what was a largely rough regular season.

For more context, consider this: Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount has eight rushing touchdowns over the past three games, more than five teams had all season.

Each team has emphasized throughout the week that the previous matchup will have no bearing on Sunday's showdown, but it does help us focus through a lens that is likely to play a big part in the rematch Sunday.

Has Pats run defense improved?

Those 280 rushing yards allowed are an immense total, even if the Broncos accomplished it in nearly five full quarters (the winning kick in overtime came with less than two minutes to go, and the Broncos rushed for 76 overtime yards).

The run defense has been an area of limitation for the Patriots throughout the season, as New England was without nose tackle Vince Wilfork, linebacker Jerod Mayo and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly for most of it. The case can be made for that trio being the three most critical run-stoppers on the team.