Record-setting Broncos face first big test in play-offs
Quarterback Peyton Manning's passing record will count for nothing when Denver host San Diego's Chargers in their opener
Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, who set National Football League records for passing and points, open their play-off run on Sunday against the San Diego Chargers, who upset them last month.
Quarter-final play-off match-ups find Indianapolis at New England on Saturday and San Diego at Denver on Sunday in the American Conference, with New Orleans at Seattle on Saturday and San Francisco at Carolina on Sunday in the National Conference.
Winners advance to the conference finals on January 19 that will determine the teams for Super Bowl 48 on February 2 in suburban New York.
The Broncos went 13-3 to secure a first-round bye and a home-field play-off edge, setting a one-season record with 606 points as Manning set new season marks with 5,477 passing yards and 55 touchdown passes.
But the Chargers, who only qualified for the play-offs on the last day of the season, are coming off a 27-10 first-round upset win at Cincinnati and have confidence from a 27-20 shock win at Denver on December 12.
Chargers coach Mike McCoy served as Denver's offensive co-ordinator from 2009-2012, giving him insight into how to thwart Manning and the Broncos.
"The longer you keep the ball and the less he has it, the better off you're going to be," he said.
The Broncos were without receiver Wes Welker for the San Diego loss, but he has recovered from a concussion and will be a prime play-off target for Manning, who shrugs off memories of Denver's 38-35 double-overtime home play-off loss to eventual Super Bowl champions Baltimore in this round last year.
"Each season takes on its own identity and different things occurred along the way," Manning said. "This is its own chapter. We're looking forward to writing it for a number of more weeks."
Manning won his only Super Bowl with Indianapolis in 2007 and he might face his former club again in the conference final if the Colts, led by Manning replacement Andrew Luck, can topple the Patriots, led by three-time Super Bowl champion and quarterback Tom Brady, who has a record 17 play-off victories.
"When it comes down to it, the team that plays the best is going to win," said Brady. "It's hard to beat a good team when you don't play your best."
While the Patriots had a bye last week, Luck lived up to his name, rallying the Colts from a 28-point deficit for a 45-44 play-off triumph over Kansas City.
Colts defender Robert Mathis, who led the NFL with 19.5 sacks, could make Brady's day long.
"He's a great player," Brady said. "We know what we're up against. He's having one of the best years of his career."
At Seattle, the Seahawks also enjoyed a bye after a 13-3 season that gave them a home-field play-off edge. A crowd known for noise so loud that rivals cannot hear instructions brings a big boost, but the New Orleans Saints have worked with noise piped into their facility this week.
"It is deafening," Saints coach Sean Payton said of the Seattle stadium atmosphere. "They do a great job. The way the stadium is structured, the noise stays in."
New Orleans knows that all too well after losing in Seattle 34-7 last month. The Seahawks defence led the NFL in fewest points allowed, fewest yards allowed, pass defence, takeaways and interceptions.
"We're going to need our best effort to beat these guys, but if there's a team that can do it, I believe it's us," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said.
The Carolina-San Francisco game is a rematch from the regular season - Panthers edged the hosts, 49ers, 10-9 in November.
While Carolina enjoyed a first-round bye, the 49ers won 23-20 at Green Bay last weekend.
The game may hinge upon which star quarterback, Carolina's Cam Newton or San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick, can be the most successful.