Entering the AFC’s divisional round, I found myself wondering, “If the Patriots thump the Colts and the Broncos basically just survive the Chargers, will I feel any differently about the Pats’ chances in the AFC Championship?”
Well, that’s exactly what happened and now I’ve had about a week to digest it.
The answer is no.
It’s the heart versus head debate.
In my heart, this seems like exactly the type of game New England should win in Denver. That ‘us against the world, no one’s giving us a chance’ mentality, mixed with that ‘next man up’ personnel magic that’s been on display all year. If there’s any team that relishes being an underdog, it’s one led by Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
In my head, the Broncos are too strong. They have the edge in nearly every area but coaching. Even their quarterback gets the benefit of the doubt over our guy, simply because of the toys around him. A loss would be disappointing, but nothing to be embarrassed by. The Patriots, given their ridiculous rash of injuries, arguably shouldn’t still be playing.
Behold, in no particular order, my 10 biggest concerns entering Sunday’s showdown.
- Patriots running game – The Pats have won their last three games largely because of the run and they were a Top-10 squad on the ground this year. Against the Colts last weekend, Brady had to do very little thanks the combined six touchdown effort by backs LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley. However, the Broncos are very efficient at stopping the run. They held the Patriots to just 116 yards on 31 carries in their Week 12 meeting, and the Broncos finished tied for sixth in the NFL by holding opponents to 101.6 rushing yards per game during the regular season. In Denver’s last five games, including a divisional win over San Diego, opposing rushers have been limited to 96 yards or fewer four times. The Patriots’ balanced ground and pound may not be found this weekend.
- Patriots passing game – As I wrote about earlier this week, if the running game is stunted, that will put far more pressure on Brady to carry the offense – no easy task when short-yardage receivers Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Shane Vereen are your healthiest targets. The mid-season loss of Rob Gronkowski may just be too much to overcome. Fortunately, the Denver defense is severely injured without the likes of Von Miller and Chris Harris, and Brady has thrived in his career against Jack Del Rio defenses to the tune of 17 touchdowns, zero interceptions, a 72.8 completion percentage, a 121.1 rating and, most importantly, a 7-0 record. Plus, the Broncos finished 27th in the league by allowing 254.4 passing yards a game. To their credit, however, that average has dipped significantly to 171.2 over the last five weeks.
- Broncos running game – We all remember what happened when these teams last matched up nearly two months ago. Denver back Knowshon Moreno went off for a career-best 224 yards on 37 attempts as part of a 280-yard, 48-carry evening for his squad. Things weren’t normally that bad, of course, but without the consistent use of Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, and Tommy Kelly, (and now Brandon Spikes is out), New England was 30th in the regular season at preventing the run as opponents averaged 134.1 yards per game. That number has improved to 112.8 in the last six games, almost exactly the Broncos’ average in that time (112.5) – but theirs includes an 18-yard anomaly in Week 15 against the Chargers.
- Broncos passing game – Where do you start? Never mind that the Patriots have allowed 286.2 passing yards on average over the last five contests and finished 18th in the league in that category (239), the Broncos have arguably the most intimidating passing attack in NFL history. From a likely future Hall of Famer in Peyton Manning under center to four high-caliber wideouts who each caught at least 10 touchdowns in Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Julius Thomas (who didn’t play in the last matchup) and, of course, Wes Welker, Belichick’s defense has its work cut out for it. The Pats will need Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard to be at their best, as well as another inspiring game from rookie Jamie Collins. And that’s just a start. If you’re looking for any level of optimism, Manning is merely 9-12 in his career against Belichick defenses with 39 touchdowns, 30 interceptions, and 30 sacks.
- Playing on the road – The Pats may have 13 wins, but only four have come outside of Foxborough and just one of those is particularly noteworthy – a blowout of the Ravens in Baltimore in Week 16. As for the Broncos, they’re 8-1 at Mile High with their only blemish coming at the hands of the Chargers in Week 15 in a game they were missing Welker. Moreover, the Patriots haven’t played a road playoff game in seven years (a loss to Manning’s Colts) and the Denver air hasn’t been kind to New England. Since 1969 (when they were the Boston Patriots), the Pats have lost their only two playoff games and 15 of their last 18 trips to visit the Broncos. That includes three of four defeats since 2005, with a divisional playoff loss in 2006 mixed in.
- Manning motivated by legacy – If Manning’s offseason neck exam goes well, you can expect him back on the field next season, which probably means another Brady-Manning showdown when the Broncos stop at Gillette. However, this weekend could be the last playoff showdown between two of the all-time greats, which may mean Manning’s final chance to justify the comparisons he receives to his Patriots counterpart. Brady’s taken 10 of their 14 head-to-head meetings, he’s won and advanced to more Super Bowls, and he’s far and away been the better playoff performer. But, Manning has superior stats in the regular season. He’ll never acknowledge it, but, for Peyton, it’s not about tying his brother Eli in championships. It’s about chasing Tom. No one could ever argue the elder Manning’s place in football history, but where he stands in relation to Brady is a conversation that could officially end with an upset this weekend.
- Welker factor – We all know Wes likes to stick it in Bill’s face, so here’s his chance to show the Patriots they made a mistake in not giving him a long-term deal to stay in Foxborough, not to mention make up for his Week 12 struggles when he made his return to his old home. Welker may have felt silenced or stifled by his old coach on occasion, but he only has to worry about the opposing defense now. His biggest task could be getting out of his own head, no easy chore in that new oversized helmet.
- Turnovers – The Patriots were better than the Broncos in one key area this year and that’s turnover differential. New England was a plus-nine, while Denver was even. Where the Broncos struggled was with giveaways (26 to the Pats’ 20). We saw the ugly effort put forth by both teams in their 11 turnover game earlier this season, but that won’t happen again. Hopefully the Patriots can build on the eight takeaways they’ve had the last three games (vs. only one giveaway), but the Broncos haven’t been surrendering the ball much of late either. They have just three turnovers in their last five outings. Normally this would seem to go in the Pats’ favor, but it’s hard to shake that visual of Ridley putting the ball on the ground in a big spot. At least Broncos fans share that feeling whenever Manning tosses a wobbly ball.
- Red zone deficiencies – The Broncos were absurd in the red zone this season, scoring touchdowns on 76.1 percent of their chances to lead the NFL. The Patriots ranked 13th defensively at 53.9 percent inside the 20. For them, limiting the Broncos to field goals would be a victory. Fortunately, Denver didn’t sit any better at slowing opponents in the red area (25th, 61.2%), but New England scored in only 57.8 percent of its attempts, a number drastically lower without Gronkowski.
- The weather – Say what you want about Manning not being able to hold his own in the cold. It won’t matter. The forecast for Sunday in Denver calls for sunny skies, no rain, slight winds, and potentially a 60-degree afternoon. The weather won’t come into play at all. If nothing else, the Patriots are at a disadvantage with the altitude change. That may be a reach, but it’s a bigger concern than anything the Broncos will face in this area.
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About this blog
Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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