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Bell: Clock Is Ticking For Both Manning And Brady Ahead Of AFC Championship Game

The more things change, the more they stay the same.Tom Brady is back in the AFC Championship Game, four quarters away from yet another Super Bowl.AFC Championship Game

While CBS executives can salivate over the imminent ratings bonanza assured with the next chapter of arguably the greatest quarterback rivalry in NFL history, this is not good news for Peyton Manning.

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Brady should be the last man Manning wants to see on the other sideline at Mile High on Sunday.

In 14 head-to-head matchups against Manning, Brady has won 10 times – most recently a thrilling comeback in November when the Patriots rallied from a 24-point deficit.

In three previous playoff matches against Manning, Brady’s up 2-1.

Now comes the eighth conference title game for the New England Patriots quarterback. Aligned with his wily coach, Bill Belichick, he usually wins those high-stakes games, too.

Yet if you’ve paid attention to the twists and turns of this dramatic NFL campaign, you can’t be blamed for thinking it was not going to happen this season for Brady.

There was so much adversity – injuries and the sensational murder charges facing former tight end Aaron Hernandez. And with six wins by three points or less, the Patriots’ close calls underscore their work-in-progress vulnerability.

But here they are, led by Brady.

“I know people have counted us out at times during this year, but I think we have a locker room full of believers,” Brady said after Saturday night’s smackdown of the Indianapolis Colts, 43-22, in the AFC divisional round. “Hopefully, we can go out and play our best next week.”

It’s tough not to believe in Brady, even though he’s surrounded by a cast that has proven almost nothing when it comes to winning championships.

That’s still the standard for the Patriots – championships.

There will be a lot of discussion this week about Manning’s quest to win a second Super Bowl ring and all of his setbacks along the way.

But Brady has that same type of pressure, despite owning three Super Bowl rings.

The Patriots haven’t won a Super Bowl in nearly nine years. This is what still drives Brady, and the fact that they have come close – losing in Super Bowl XLII after posting a perfect regular season in 2007, and again in Super Bowl XLVI – does not make the drought any easier to handle.

As is the case for Manning, the clock is ticking for Brady. He’s 36.

Sure, Brady wants to play into his 40s. But it’s football. There are no guarantees.

It has been arguably the most challenging season of his 14-year career. The stats tell us that, too.

Brady completed 60.5% of his passes during the regular season, his lowest rate in a full season since 2003. He hasn’t thrown for as few touchdowns (25) in a full season since 2006. His passer rating (87.3) is his lowest since 2003, and his yardage (4,343) was his lowest since 2010.

On Saturday night, the Patriots scored 43 points – yet Brady didn’t throw for a single touchdown.

But he is still here, because his team has essentially learned, like Brady, to roll with the punches.

It’s not like this is the first time the Patriots have had to deal with injuries.

“The main thing is just to try to figure out what you need to do as an offense to still be productive,” Brady said last week. “You can lose a tight end or a receiver or running back at any point in any game, and no one really feels sorry for you at that point. You just got to figure out a way to get as many yards and score as many points as you can.”

New England rolled with the rushing attack on Saturday night. The Patriots logged a season-high 46 rushing attempts for 234 yards, the second-most in a playoff game in franchise history. They scored a team-record six rushing TDs, including four from LeGarrette Blount, a 250-pound mix of power and speed.

Brady made several third-down completions to help build an early cushion, and his biggest throw of the night – a 53-yard heave to Danny Amendola – came off a play-action fake. But with the rushing attack humming, he was content to hand the ball off while throwing for a modest 198 yards.

That formula has been in the works all season, and has seemingly become even stronger at the perfect time. In the Week 17 regular-season finale against Buffalo, the Patriots rushed for 267 yards.

“It’s really been a strength of ours all season – the way our running backs have played and the way our offensive line performs,” Brady said. “You get in these conditions and like we did against Buffalo when the elements played a part…to have that running game be as efficient as we’ve been has been great.”

This powerful running game looms as a huge advantage for Brady. He’ll take it.

In the playoffs, it is not about style points. It’s about winning. And Brady knows how that feels better than most.

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