Originally written on NESN.com  |  Last updated 10/29/12
Building on what has been a common NFL theme for more than a decade, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning mastered the art of quarterbacking on Sunday, leading their respective teams to victory in impressive fashion. Now, there should be little doubt about which two teams will make the strongest push for the AFC's No. 2 seed, which carries a significant postseason advantage. Shortly after Brady finished torching the Rams for 304 yards and four touchdowns on Sunday, Manning flexed his muscle, tossing for 305 yards and three scores against the disappointing Saints. The two veterans essentially traded blows without even gracing the same field, and it's looking more and more like the Football Gods aren't quite ready to move on from the classic Brady-Manning rivalry -- even if Manning now dons a different uniform. And while both New England and Denver should feel good about how Sunday played out, Patriots fans need to take notice of Manning's current MVP-caliber play, as it could make life difficult for the Pats come playoff time. Brady and the Patriots took Round 1 against the Broncos this season, but Manning moved the ball with ease in the second half of that game. He hasn't slowed down since, picking apart the Chargers and Saints in back-to-back weeks. Suddenly, the Broncos look like they're on the verge of becoming legitimate Super Bowl contenders, and for a number of reasons, that thought is scarier than anything else Pats fans will see or hear this Halloween. The Patriots put together a complete game on Sunday, and their heavily criticized secondary looked very much improved, but let's keep in mind that the effort came against a very lackluster St. Louis passing attack. The unit will have to prove itself against stiffer competition before a true sense of confidence should settle in. If the Patriots were to go up against Manning's Broncos tomorrow, it'd be shocking if Manning didn't have a field day, especially considering how awesome he's looked the last two games. But beyond the sheer terror of a potential playoff matchup against Manning and the red-hot Broncos offense, Patriots fans also have to worry about what continued success by Denver could mean in terms of playoff seeding. Assuming the Texans are able to take care of business and lock up the conference's No. 1 seed, one playoff bye will be there for the taking, and that week off could be huge. Not only would a bye allow for rest, but it also has the potential to set up a fairly easy road to the Super Bowl, which the Patriots benefited from last season. Even despite a subpar defense, last year's Pats only had to overcome Tim Tebow's 8-8 Broncos to earn a home date with the Ravens in the AFC Championship. With how weak the AFC is this season, grabbing the No. 2 seed and the bye that comes with it could yield similar results. No matter how concerning New England's defense has been at times this season, a bye, a weak opponent and a Billy Cundiff-type choke could be all that separates the Patriots and a trip back to the big game. Failing to earn the No. 2 seed and the bye week, however, will mean a much more difficult road, and that could ultimately be enough to exploit the Patriots' flaws. Much of this is hypothetical, and there's still a chance the Steelers, Ravens or some other team makes a strong push in the AFC, but Manning's Broncos currently look like they're the biggest obstacle standing between the Patriots and a first-round bye. That shouldn't take anything away from New England's London beatdown, but just as Pats fans learned this week not to get too low based on one game, it'd also be wise not to get too high. The Patriots' future looks a lot brighter after Sunday's win, but the Broncos' equally impressive victory proves there's still a dark cloud that could roll through.
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