Could the Pats beat Manning and the Broncos again?
The New England Patriots' Super Bowl aspirations are not doomed, but they undeniably took a crippling blow last Sunday.
Quite simply, the Patriots have no replacement for Rob Gronkowski's all-around dominance, and their offense, which had blossomed since his return, now faces the daunting challenge of making a deep postseason run without their All-Pro tight end.
It's hard to actually evaluate New England, given its constant injury-related personnel turnover. Though the offense was not pretty without Gronk early in the season, the development of rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, coupled with a healthy Shane Vereen and Danny Amendola should help.
On the othe hand, the Patriots defense has taken a nosedive in the past month with the lack of healthy bodies finally showing up in an inability to shut down opponents.
However, the Patriots will almost assuredly be in the playoffs, and their last three games will offer an opportunity to adjust before the stakes get higher. In the meantime, we can speculate as to how the Pats would fare against AFC contenders in the postseason, given their personnel and strengths on paper.
All of this comes with a caveat: No one knows what creative scheming Bill Belichick will concoct to offset his team's injuries. As Pats fans have painfully learned, a team's health can change in an instant, so the AFC picture today will likely not be the same as by the end of Week 17.
But for now, here's a preliminary look at how the Gronk-less Patriots match up against the current AFC playoff field.
*All stats courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference or Pro Football Focus' premium section (subscription required).
The Good News
Pats fans may recoil at the thought of playing Baltimore due to their team's recent history against the defending Super Bowl champ, but in truth, the Ravens are really not well-equipped to take down New England again.
Baltimore's putrid running game is punchless at this point, a byproduct of personnel turnover and Ray Rice's nagging injuries. The Patriots have hemorrhaged yards on the ground recently, but the Ravens are perhaps the league's best antidote against those struggles.
Moreover, Joe Flacco has regressed from his spectacular performance last postseason, in part due to the lack of an intermediate receiving option. Consequently, a Ravens team that thrived off of huge pass plays last season only has 38 completions of 20 or more yards to rank 21st in the league.
The Bad News
Defensively, Baltimore still possesses a pair of potent pass-rushers in Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs, who have combined for 19 sacks, 22 hits and 66 hurries. New England's tackles have struggled recently, with Nate Solder slumping over the last month apart from a plus-5.0 grade against the Texans.
The Ravens have had success in stymieing the New England offense by clogging up the intermediate middle of the field and getting after Tom Brady. With Gronk's injury robbing New England of its best field-stretching target, we can expect the Ravens to try and replicate that game plan in any hypothetical meeting.
Threat Level: 5/10
The Ravens certainly would not be intimidated due to their recent success against the Pats, but New England is simply the better team. If the Pats fall out of the No. 2 seed, Baltimore looms as a potential opponent in the wild-card round.
The Good News
The Chiefs have a reputation of being the league's best defense, but that has not been true for about a month now. Kansas City's byzantine blitz schemes (detailed beautifully here by SportsOnEarth's Mike Tanier) are now familiar enough for teams to combat while injuries to Tamba Hali and Justin Houston have not helped.
Over the last four games, the Chiefs have given up the most yards in the league, including the sixth-most yards per play. There's some selection bias in that, as three of those games have come against the Broncos and Chargers, representing two of the league's best offenses. Nevertheless, Kansas City's futile resistance against both has raised legitimate questions as to how tough the Chiefs defense truly is.
The Bad News
Jamaal Charles is difficult for any team to contain, but the Patriots appear especially ill-suited to deal with Kansas City's all-around explosive weapon.
I've previously mentioned how New England has had trouble containing the big run in recent weeks. Well, Charles has 18 runs of 15 or more yards, tied with LeSean McCoy for the most in the league. His ability as a receiver also makes him a tough assignment for the Patriots' coverage-deficient linebackers.
For all his limitations, Alex Smith's ability to avoid turnovers spells trouble for a Patriots defense that struggles without them. Additionally, Smith's 102.7 rating in the red zone is fifth highest among quarterbacks with at least 50 passes within the opposing 20-yard line. His ability to thrive in critical situations bodes poorly for a New England defense that needs to win those battles in order to succeed.
Threat Level: 5.5/10
The Chiefs match up decently with the Patriots, even if the game might be a bit higher scoring than most would anticipate. But since the game would be in Foxboro, New England would still hold a clear edge.
The Good News
Andrew Luck has struggled mightily behind his inconsistent pass protection and a general dearth of targets, completing just 56.7 percent of his passes for a 79.9 quarterback rating that ranks seventh worst among quarterbacks with at least 100 passes since Week 9.
The Indianapolis defense has also regressed in the past five weeks, allowing the fourth-most yards per play. The Colts do not have many significant playmakers on that side of the ball while injuries to Vontae Davis and Robert Mathis have crippled them. Indy does not have a particularly good coverage linebacker either, which could spell big things for Patriots running back Shane Vereen.
The Bad News
The Colts are going to get reinforcements at critical areas, something the Patriots cannot claim. Davis and Mathis are playing through injuries and may get time off to rest if Indy falls out of the race for a first-round bye. The offensive line, which has been a sieve recently, will presumably get starting guards Jeff Linkenbach and Hugh Thornton back, although Linkenbach is more of a question mark.
For all his struggles, Luck does have three fourth-quarter comebacks this season. Even without Wayne, Luck's 101.4 quarterback rating in the second half is seventh highest in the NFL. For a Pats team with a propensity for playing close games, Luck's late-game success could spell trouble.
Threat Level: 4/10
OK, you can probably tell I was stretching for reasons to worry. Simply put, the Patriots' superior depth has put them in a better position to withstand their avalanche of injuries than the Colts, who are suffering the consequences of their roster construction.
The Good News
The Bengals are a little thinner since their defensively dominating 13-6 win over the Pats in Week 5. Geno Atkins and Leon Hall are gone for the year, robbing Cincinnati of its two defensive cornerstones. Hall missed the Pats game, but Atkins wreaked total havoc, compiling a plus-5.3 grade as a result of a sack, three hurries and three stops.
The Patriots defense also proved extremely effective against Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton, even without Tommy Kelly for portions of the game. Aqib Talib did an excellent job on A.J. Green, conceding just five receptions for 61 yards on eight targets in their first meeting. Dalton also did not stretch the defense, as just six of his 27 passes traveled beyond nine yards from the line of scrimmage. He is the type of quarterback against whom the Pats can afford to play more aggressively to mask their personnel shortcomings.
The Bad News
Despite the losses of Hall and Atkins, the defense remains formidable. Since Week 8, when Cincy played its first game without either, the Bengals have allowed the third-fewest yards per play, and are allowing just 18.2 points per game. That mark would rank fourth if extrapolated to a full season.
The Bengals' front seven is less intimidating without Atkins, but the defense remains the type of big, physical unit that has proven successful in disrupting the Patriots' timing-based passing game. With no Gronkowski, the Bengals can afford to again jam New England's possession receivers and allow their pass-rushers to hone in on Brady.
One other factor to consider: Gio Bernard, who received a modest 15 touches in the first meeting, has seen his role expand in recent weeks. Bernard has not played fewer than 48 percent of the Bengals' offensive snaps since Week 8, gradually taking touches away from plodding ex-Pat BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The rookie is the type of explosive all-around back who could give the Pats fits if utilized.
Threat Level: 8/10
The Patriots would have a massive advantage at quarterback and possibly home field, but little else. The Bengals are well equipped to beat New England, and may very well do so if they can wrestle away the first-round bye.
The Good News
Well, the Pats have done it before. It's doubtful New England could replicate their turnover-filled, wind-whipped comeback of Nov. 24 in Foxboro, but it certainly helps knowing that the Patriots have already beaten Denver.
Denver's defense is improving, but also extremely thin, as the second half illustrated. Without top corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the Broncos were forced to turn to a soft zone that allowed Tom Brady to carve up the secondary. Since 2011, Brady has eviscerated Denver with six touchdowns, no picks, a 69.6 completion percentage and 109.6 passer rating against relatively similar personnel. The Pats should have offensive success, even without Gronkowski.
The Bad News
The Patriots defense played arguably its best game of the season in the clutch, coming up with four turnovers and two overtime stops when the Broncos had entered New England territory and needed only a field goal to win. Winning the majority of those critical situations will again be necessary for the Patriots, but it is dubious as to whether the Pats defense could put on a repeat performance.
The Broncos also played without Julius Thomas and Champ Bailey the first time around, both of whom are now back. It's impossible to know who will be healthy in a month, but Denver has a fairly clear personnel edge at the moment. The game would also likely take place in Denver, where the Manning-era Broncos have lost just twice.
Threat Level: 10/10
Look, it's not as if the Patriots cannot beat the Broncos. Denver is not invincible, and if the Patriots can win a few critical situations on third down and in the red zone, they will have a chance. But the Broncos are likely the better team, and any rational Pats fan must admit that winning again, while far from impossible, would be difficult.