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Passing, not running, will decide AFC Championship

Posted by Adam Kaufman  January 14, 2014 11:45 PM

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Most rivalries are created by history, while others are driven by stories. In the case of the Patriots and Broncos, it’s most certainly the latter.

This week, we’re leading up to an AFC title bout between New England and Denver with a series of hotly debated questions that, in most cases, will soon have answers.

We began on Tuesday by asking if Sunday’s tilt will be the last meaningful showcase featuring aging and elite QBs Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Today, we wonder…

Will quarterbacks indeed define the AFC Championship?

Tom Brady vs Broncos.jpg

Entering the AFC divisional round, NFL media incessantly reminded football fans the game is built around its quarterbacks. It was sexy to bill the Pats and Colts as Brady versus Andrew Luck but it was clear from their teams’ strengths and weaknesses that QB’s would not dictate the story.

In Brady-Manning XV, the marquee is appropriate.

When these clubs last faced off in a fumble-filled overtime thriller won by the Patriots just prior to Thanksgiving, Brady threw 50 times for 344 yards and three touchdowns while four backs – ironically led by Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen – combined to carry the ball 29 times for 116 yards.

On the other side, the Broncos were content to run and the Pats were happy to let them. Knowshon Moreno went off for a career-best 224 yards on 37 attempts (the Broncos had 280 yards on 48 carries), and Manning endured season-worst totals of 150 yards passing and a 52.8 completion percentage. The privileged passer was passive.

Nearly two months later, active rosters and philosophies have changed.

The Patriots are without their top receiving threat in tight end Rob Gronkowski, who caught seven balls for 90 yards and a touchdown in that 34-31 rally. Gone, too, is linebacker Brandon Spikes, one of six Pats players to recover a fumble on that chilly, windy night. He also finished seventh in the game with nine tackles.

The Broncos have added their star tight end in Julius Thomas, who was a 12-TD, 788-yard recipient during the regular season but missed that contest with a knee injury. Denver’s defensive side of the ball is brutally hampered now, though, without All-Pro linebacker Von Miller (who had two sacks, forced one fumble, and returned another for a score in the last meeting), tackle Kevin Vickerson (two QB hits and a sack), and top cornerback Chris Harris (four tackles). It wasn’t until Harris went down with an ACL tear midway through the third quarter of last weekend’s survival of the Chargers that San Diego was able to make a hard push to hand Manning a ninth one-and-done playoff season.

But even with Miller, Vickerson, and Harris healthy, the Broncos weren’t known for their defense in 2013. They finished 19th in the regular season by allowing 356 yards per game and 22nd in points against at 24.9.

Broken down further, they were stout against the run (7th, 101.6 yards per game) and lousy versus the pass (27th, 254.4), as evidenced in a microcosm back in Week 12.

That’s where this game develops a new and intriguing wrinkle.

With Gronkowski out and only the soon-to-be-wealthy Julian Edelman having proven a reliable receiver, the Patriots have evolved. In their last three games – all wins – they’ve run the ball 123 times and thrown just 75 passes. LeGarrette Blount has averaged 143 of New England’s 214 ground-and-pound yards during that stretch and he’s found the end zone eight times.

If the Pats can locate their holes and create offensive balance with the use of a heavy rushing attack, they’re assuredly going to do so. If it ain’t broke…

Tom Brady 6.jpg

But – and this would normally seem counterintuitive or downright insane to suggest – it would behoove the Broncos to focus on stopping the run and dare Brady to beat them.

Yes, it’s in their best interests to challenge one of the best quarterbacks of all-time and a two-time MVP.

Brady has three ideal targets – Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Vereen – and they’re all short and play for short yardage. Size is missing from the equation, and distance will likely only arise from defensive lapses. Should Denver be able to stack the line and take away the running game, New England will be in trouble unless its signal-caller can abuse defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio with the regularity he’s done so in the past. According to colleague Erik Frenz, Brady has a 72.8 completion percentage, 1,774 yards, 17 touchdowns, and zero interceptions against Del Rio defenses in his career. Here’s hoping former Broncos coach and current Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has a trick or two up his full-length sleeve to continue that trend because a stunted ground game and man-coverage on Edelman could deplete Brady’s options frighteningly quickly. The Patriots are unlikely to win a game where his runners are ineffective and Amendola is the receiver of choice.

Ordinarily, forcing Brady’s hand would lack better judgment. In this case, the Broncos would be crazy not to.

As we witnessed last weekend, Brady didn’t have to beat the Colts. It was never in the game-plan. This time, he’ll have to be the one to provide his team with a ‘W’ against the Broncos. It’s the best way to silence the critics proclaiming the road-troubled Patriots can’t win if they can’t run. The QB knows it, too, which is why he’s said it would be one of the most satisfying victories of his career if his team can pull it off.

Peyton Manning 2.jpg

In turn, the Broncos are likely to back off their lean-on-Moreno stance, even against a Pats team that is deficient at stopping the run (30th, 134.1). In what may be the final game of his Hall of Fame journey, Manning has something to prove, a legacy to fight for, a full and healthy complement of weapons, and the sunny, 50-degree weather will be on his side. This time, he won’t hand the ball off and simply skate to whatever the outcome without a consistent and defining impact on the game.

The Patriots’ “Next Man Up” defense will have to be ready opposite the most successful offense in league history because a shootout won’t end in their favor this time. Surrendering only field goals would be almost as much of a triumph as forcing punts.

But, ultimately, their game won’t come down to the defense or the run game. Brady’s right shoulder will have more responsibility than it’s had all season. Strangely, that puts the Patriots right where the Broncos want them.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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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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