AFC title may come down to kickers
DENVER — Antonio Smith says nobody can get into Tom Brady's head. That didn't stop Denver's defensive lineman from trying by labelling New England's quarterback a crybaby.
"I've never seen any quarterback look to the referee right after he gets sacked more than Brady," Smith said with a smile. "Every time he gets sacked he looks at the ref like, 'You see him sack me? Was that supposed to happen? He did it a little hard. Please throw a 15-yard penalty on him. Get him fined."'
Both teams know the AFC championship won't be decided by potshots — and maybe not even by the golden arms of Brady and Peyton Manning when they square off for the 17th — and likely final — time Sunday in Denver.
Maybe it'll come down to two of the greatest toes on turf instead.
Especially with Denver sporting the league's stingiest defense and Manning reduced to managing the Broncos' no-longer explosive offense.
New England's Stephen Gostkowski was the NFL's top kicker in 2015, winning his second All-Pro honor after leading the league with 151 points.
Denver's Brandon McManus tied an NFL record by nailing all five of his kicks in tricky crosswinds in Denver's 23-16 win over Pittsburgh in the divisional round.
Sunday's forecast in Denver calls for a clouds and temperatures at kickoff in the lower 40s, dipping into the 30s, which is good news for both Manning and Brady.
Last weekend's game was also supposed to be mild.
"During warmups, we went out there and it was a pretty calm day, a nice, tempered day," McManus said. "We come out seven minutes before kickoff and I see a 30 mph crosswind come in over the Rockies."
With the goal posts swaying wildly from the gusts almost the entire game, McManus converted field goals of 28, 41, 51, 41 and 45 yards, joking it was such a tricky task that he just kept aiming "at the guy holding the beer in the top left corner."
"I think all of them were big," said Demaryius Thomas, who had one of seven dropped passes thanks to the blustery winds. "He kept us in the game with the field goals. Him being able to kick with this wind helped us."
Gostkowski is accustomed to kicking in bad conditions, too. So, if it gets windy Sunday, neither he nor McManus will fret.
"You kind of have to hit a ball to a spot and hopefully the wind takes it," McManus said. "I had that 51-yarder right before halftime. I thought it was going to be easy down the middle, and it barely sneaked in."
Gostkowski's field goals from 40 and 32 yards in the fourth quarter last weekend helped the Patriots stave off Kanas City 27-20. He also nailed a 47-yarder as time expired to send the game to overtime when New England visited Denver on Nov. 29, a game in which McManus missed from the same distance.
While Gostkowski, a 10-year veteran, breezed to his first All-Pro honor since 2008, McManus started out hot, then slumped down the stretch. He made his first 13 kicks, including 57- and 56-yarders in the opener against Baltimore, and was named the AFC's special teams player of the month in October.
His late-season slump included missed kicks in five consecutive games, including one off the left upright in a three-point loss to Oakland. He also shanked one from 45 yards against Cincinnati with no time left but atoned for that miss with a 37-yarder in overtime.
His coach never lost faith in the second-year pro who'd been cut by the previous coaching staff last year and won his job back over the summer.
"I think Brandon's confidence is up right now," Gary Kubiak said. "I think he's had a really good year. He's worked through a little rough patch and he's come back. Now he's as good as he's been all season long."
Gostkowski has missed on just three of 39 tries, counting the playoffs, and McManus is 35 of 40.
Of course, both would rather be kicking PATs Sunday than field goals.
"Any time No. 18 gets the ball, I'm thinking we're going to score a touchdown," McManus said. "I try to prepare my mind for the extra point. ... But I want to help my team any way I can. It's my job to go out there and make them."
Notes: The Broncos promoted CB Taurean Nixon from their practice squad after placing S/PR Omar Bolden (knee) on IR Tuesday. Bolden was Denver's leading punt and kickoff returner but was injured much of the season.
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