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Manning, Brady for AFC title

Photo by Matthew Emmons / USA TODAY Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning readies to throw the ball downfield in an AFC Divisional playoff game against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday.

Instant Classic: Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning for the AFC Championship next Sunday at 3 p.m. ET at Denver.

But one of those iconic quarterbacks insists the game will be more than that.

“Well it is really the Denver Broncos against the New England Patriots,” demurred Manning Sunday after setting the stage by leading the Broncos to a 24-17 divisional playoff win over the San Diego Chargers.

Oh yeah, that’s right. But Manning’s presence in this conference finale was expected by many. The Patriots, however, began the season with so many players missing for so many reasons and their presence is a testimony to the abilities of Coach Bill Belichick and Brady.

“I know people have counted us out at times, but we have a locker room full of believers,” Brady said after the Patriots eliminated the Indianapolis Colts, 43-22, Saturday night.

One of the main reasons for the Patriots advancing to the AFC title game is the play of running back LeGarrette Blount, who ran for 166 yards on 24 carries and had four touchdowns against the Colts.

The injury riddled Patriots, seeking their first championship since 2004 and the fourth of the Belichick/Brady era will be in their third consecutive AFC title game.

It will be the eighth time since Belichick became the Patriots coach and Brady the quarterback the team has played to go to the Super Bowl.

“I’m really proud of our football team,” Belichick said after his team ran for a club-record six touchdowns. Blount also recorded the first four-touchdown game in club history.

Blount scored his first three touchdowns from 2 yards out and then ran 73 yards for his fourth score, that one coming in the fourth quarter to re-establish his team’s 14-point lead.

“There’s nothing better than seeing that big guy out in the open field,” Patroits guard Logan Mankins said. “He grabs that other gear from somewhere and he starts moving and you know none of those safeties and corner want to tackle him and they’re not going to tackle him once it’s one on one with him out there and no one else around. It’s fun to watch him.”

Brady, winning his record 18th postseason game, was 13 of 25 for 198 yards. With the running game thriving, he has completed just 41 passes in the last three games, and his team has won all three, scoring 118 points.

The Patriots, who had run for just four touchdowns in their previous seven playoff games, ran for 234 yards, giving them 643 in the last three games.

Second-year quarterback Andrew Luck, who led the Colts from a 38-10 deficit to a win over Kansas City Chiefs in the wild-card game, threw two touchdown passes to wide receiver LaVon Brazill but was picked off four times, twice by corner back Alfonzo Dennard, in the loss.

Luck was 20 of 41 for 331 yards.

Hilton, who caught 13 passes for 224 yards and two scores against Kansas City, caught four passes for 103 yards, while wide receiver Julian Edelman caught six Brady passes.

Patriots’ kicker Stephen Gostkowski was used as a punter after a shoulder injury suffered by Ryan Allen on a bad snap that led to a safety, and averaged an impressive 45.8 yards on four kicks before a throw-away 26-yarder in the final minutes.

The win was Belichick’s 19th in the postseason, tying him with Don Shula for second place all time, one win behind Tom Landry.