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What to watch for in the AFC Championship

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff  January 19, 2014 07:59 AM

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DENVER — The AFC Championship won’t be like the Patriots’ last matchup with the Denver Broncos.

The weather in Denver, expected to hit a high of 60 degrees, won’t resemble the wintry conditions felt on Nov. 24, 2013 when the temperature at kickoff was 22. The Patriots won 34-31 in overtime with the weather feeling closer to 6 degrees thanks to the wind chill. Winds were gusting up to 22 miles per hour.

That heavy wind led to some interesting decision-making by the Patriots, who elected to kick off in overtime after winning the coin toss. But it also likely led to some keen decisions by the Broncos as well, who ended up running the ball 48 times.

That likely won’t be the case Sunday, making for one-on-one matchups to carry greater importance for the AFC Championship tilt.

Here’s what we’ll be watching:

1. Jamie Collins against Julius Thomas — The Patriots rookie linebacker will be tested against one of the NFL’s top tight ends in Julius Thomas. Thomas did not play in the first bout between the Patriots and Broncos. But after he caught 65 passes for 778 yards and 12 touchdowns in 14 regular season games, he is a well-known threat. With Thomas at 6-5 and 250 pounds, Collins (6-3, 250) may be the only Patriots player with the size to cover and compete with him.

2. Aqib Talib vs. Demaryius Thomas — Demaryius Thomas caught four passes for 41 yards and a touchdown last time around against the Patriots. He got the best of Aqib Talib in that matchup, catching three of those passes with Talib in coverage, including the touchdown. But he made sure to make things difficult for Thomas in overtime, denying him a pass on 3rd and 14. How Talib handles one of the league’s top boundary receivers in Round 2 will have huge implications on the game.

3. Containment of Shaun Phillips — Denver’s outside linebacker has replaced Von Miller as the team’s top pass rushing specialist. He tallied two sacks against his former team, the San Diego Chargers, in the AFC Divisional round and 10 sacks this season. Containing him should be a point of emphasis for the Patriots’ offensive line.

4. Peyton Manning’s foibles — The league’s top quarterback has had well-known meltdowns in the postseason. His 10-11 record in the playoffs is littered with games in which he has thrown an untimely interception, was unable to convert on a key play, or failed in the red zone when his team needed a touchdown most. For as much as this game is about how the Patriots can somehow limit the league’s top offense, led by the league’s top quarterback, it’s just as much about whether Manning can maintain his high level of play at a time when the best is expected of him.

5. Bill Belichick’s gamesmanship — Whether the goal is to shut down the Broncos’ passing attack or somehow rein in their running game, which was prolific in Week 12, the Patriots coach’s game plan has to somehow confuse and confound Broncos coach John Fox and Manning enough to render the best offense an average counterweight. In the Patriots and Broncos’ first meeting, there was an open-door sign for the Broncos to run on every down, with the Patriots benefiting greatly from the wind and Manning taking a backseat to Knowshon Moreno (224 yards). By the time the Broncos really started attacking the Patriots through the air, New England had already scored 28 straight points. That sort of gamesmanship, while successful against the Broncos with Jack Del Rio at the helm, likely won’t work twice. But that doesn’t mean Belichick won’t have something else up his sleeve.

6. Wes Welker’s redemption? — Former Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker did not have a good showing when he was back in New England. Back deep to return a punt in overtime, he hesitated to step up and make a fair catch that ended up bouncing off teammate Tony Carter and into the hands of Patriots defensive back Nate Ebner. That was the play that put the Patriots in field goal position for Stephen Gostkowski, who nailed the 31-yard game-winner. This time around, he’ll likely be kept to his wide receiving duties, a job in which he was only marginally effective last time around (four catches on eight targets for 31 yards). Will he have a redemptive performance? He surely must be thinking it.

7. Attacking cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Quentin Jammer — Because of an injury to starting cornerback Chris Harris, the Broncos are going to have to rely on defensive backs Champ Bailey, an early season starter turned slot corner, and Quentin Jammer, the team’s fourth defensive back. These veterans with 15 and 12 years of experience are not what they used to be, especially Jammer, who was abused by the Chargers last week. Patriots receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola will have their opportunities to attack guys like Jammer throughout the game. They have to take advantage.

8. Marquice Cole’s impact — Also because of the injury to Harris, the Broncos signed former Patriots defensive back Marquice Cole to fill the depth gap. Cole was a core special teams contributor for the Patriots this season and is a capable defensive back in a pinch. Whether or not he contributes, especially with only a week of practice, is not guaranteed. But all indications say that he will. What impact he may have is something else entirely.

9. Julian Edelman’s speed — As far as slights go, Edelman has a legitimate claim to the week’s top insult. Broncos safety Mike Adams said he was a “one speed” kind of guy. That’s more than enough incentive for Edelman, who caught 105 passes in the regular season, to show off his one speed. Maybe on his way to the end zone. Who knows?

10. Who’s available? — Wide receivers Aaron Dobson (foot) and Kenbrell Thompkins (concussion) are both questionable. Punter Ryan Allen (shoulder) is also questionable. The Patriots could use another receiver to add a layer to their passing attack, especially one of Dobson’s size and ability. Allen is obviously pivotal to the Patriots’ special teams unit as punter and holder. Having at least Allen available could be a difference-maker if the Patriots were to have to deal with any long field goals or backed-up punts.

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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