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AFC Championship Playoff Preview: Patriots vs Broncos

New England Patriots (13-4) v Denver Broncos (14-3)

As I write New England v Denver, I don’t think Patriots versus Broncos, I think Peyton Manning versus Tom Brady.  If you are a football fan it does not get anymore hyped than this.  NBA fans probably rekindle it to Magic versus Bird, or boxing fans Ali versus Frazier.  This will be the 15th time that these two square off, and this time it means going to the Super Bowl.  If you took this as a individual effort instead of a team sport, then Brady would be favored by quite a bit.  He has won 10 of the 14 match-ups, and this is the fourth meeting in the postseason over the past 11 years.  The Patriots have the upper hand in that area as well.  New England has won three of the four, but a Manning led Colts, took care of an 0-3 streak, by beating New England in 2006, with a final score of 38-34  In the contest earlier this season, the Patriots were victorious again.  Brady led his team, as he put on a great come from behind victory in Foxborough.  It turned out to be a tale of two halves, as Denver was leading 24-0 going into the locker room, and found themselves heading back to Denver losing in overtime (34-31). Adding even more intrigue to the matchup is cornerback Marquice Cole, who appeared in 13 games with the Patriots before being released on Dec. 26, was signed by the Broncos earlier this week. Alas, the Manning and Brady competition is just the dramatic angle of the sport, what it really boils down to who has the better overall team.

New England is coming off a win in the Divisional round, where they dispatched the Colts. In a 43-22 victory, the Patriots where never really in trouble of losing, and moved the ball at will against the Colts defense. LeGarrette Blount had a hall of fame day scoring four touchdowns, one on a 73 yard run, while rushing for 166 yards, and helped New England get to their third straight AFC Championship game. Brady’s day was not the greatest.  He completed just 13 of 25 passes and did not throw for a touchdown, but mostly this was due to Blount and Stevan Ridley carving up Indianapolis. Ridley had two touchdowns of his own, and the six rushing touchdowns was one shy of a post season record, set by the Chicago Bears in 1940. Even though the rushing game finished with 234 yards and Brady had 198 yards passing, Tom Brady went on to say that “a strength of ours all season has been how our running backs have played and the way our offensive line performs.”  The Patriots are 25-17 in the postseason and 7-3 in the AFC Championship game.

In the other AFC matchup the Broncos also did not have any real problems defeating the Chargers, although the score reflects a closer game than the one on the field.  Denver won the game 24-17.  San Diego scored 14 points late in the game as Rivers hit Keenan Allen twice on two consecutive 16 yard receptions. After San Diego recovered an onside kick, and kicked a field goal, to make it a seven point game. The game came to an end though, when Peyton Manning converted two third down plays to tight end Julius Thomas.  Manning finished the game with 230 passing yards and two touchdowns.  The key players on the receiving end were the two Thomas’ and Wes Welker. These three finished with 20 receptions for 168 yards and two touchdowns, one to Welker the other to Demaryius. On the ground, Knowhson finished with one touchdown and 82 rushing yards. This is the first time Denver has made the AFC Championship in eight years.  The Broncos are 19-17 in the postseason and 6-2 in AFC Championship games.  They are 27=20 all-time against the Patriots, including a 2-1 edge in the playoffs.

Coming into this week’s game both team defenses have struggled. Denver looked strong in the first three quarters against San Diego, and then the flood gates opened for 17 4th quarter points.  On the other front, New England has been average at best.  When these two met earlier this season, and the game finished with a combined 65 points, it mostly fell to the defense struggling in each given half of play.  It also has only gotten worse for the Broncos as Von Miller is gone with an ACL tear and Chris Harris tore his against San Diego last Sunday. Defensive end Derek Wolfe will also be out, due to him being placed on IR for suffering from seizure-like symptoms. Broncos have not had much success with replacing these injuries as Quentin Jammer, Malik Jackson have struggled.  Denver is tough in the middle though, as both Shaun Phillips and DT Terrance Knighton have been a force, but with the line backers built for speed, Denver could have a tough time with the power running game of New England.  The Patriots are also dealing with their own amount of void vacancies that their competition is facing. Players such as Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Jerod Mayo and Adrian Wilson are all on season ending injury.  This has meant that cornerback Aqib Talib and Devin McCourty had to step up, and have done so, as each are Pro-Bowl talented.

On the offense side of the ball, New England and Denver are much more identical in a positive light.  Each run off the octane of their quarterback, and both teams have a revolving head at the running back position.  With the Patriots though, they show a mixture at running back with four players including Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden as receivers out of the backfield.  New England will have to rely on their running game for two reasons.  First, to run time off the clock and keep the Broncos offense off the field.  The Patriots will need long successful drives down the field and score. The Chargers laid out the blueprint for beating Denver in the regular season, demonstrating a ball-control mentality, keeping it for nearly 39 minutes while converting 6- of-12 third downs opportunities.

This will put a pressure on Manning to be out of his game and force him to make mistakes.  Manning has a rhythm and a control about him.  He is a true conductor of an orchestra, and when situations go wrong, he puts it on himself to hide those mistakes.  In the Patriots running game, Blount has said: “I’m really confident, those guys in front of me, the offensive line, if we’re going to be able to continue running the football like that throughout the playoffs, then I’ll be happy with it.” Tom Brady will also have to pick it up, and be a support as well. He didn’t have his prototypical touchdown year as he only finished with 25, but with over 4,000 yards passing it was not a complete miss.  Julian Edelman was his top target, but missing for most of the season was Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski. Patriots did have success against the Colts without “Gronk”, but it will be hard to duplicate twice, especially in a title game.

The Broncos offense goes much more wider on the field as compared to New England.  As the Patriots rely on their mixture at the running game, Denver does so through the air. Welker, Eric Decker and  both Thomas’ are relied on heavily. Pats safety Steve Gregory commented about Denver’s playmakers “Yeah, it’s impressive, so, we’re going to have to be on top of our A game. We’re going to have to narrow down our game plan this week and put in a good week of practice and play fundamentally sound, tackle well, do all those things that it takes to beat a great team.”  The Pats know they are facing one of the best offenses of all-time.  The Broncos averaged 37.9 points per game during the regular season, and was held under 30 just three times, not including last week.  For the Broncos to win, they are going to have to rely on these averages, and to hit these marks Manning will have to have a good game. The Broncos will stall and shut down like a 1975 Station Wagon, if Manning is off on his throws, which eventually will spell the end of the year at Denver.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

Denver has nearly been unstoppable at home this year with an impressive 8-1 record, and has outscored their opponents 340-197 in those games.  However, these are the Patriots and are always coached to being prepared for any kind of situation. “Every time we go out on the field we expect to win and we prepare to win,” Belichick said. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a regular season game, postseason game, whatever game it is. We take the same approach to every game. We expect to win and we prepare to win.” Patriots will have a tough time making this happen, as it will rest on the shoulders of running backs that are either cast-offs or would not start on most teams. They do have the confidence in beating them once this year, but I believe the Broncos offense will be the overriding factor, and being at home is where the horses need to be.

The Final Score: Denver 31, New England 27

 

 

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