New England Patriots vs. Denver Broncos: Previewing the AFC Championship Game

Chris TrapassoAnalyst IJanuary 13, 2014

New England Patriots vs. Denver Broncos: Previewing the AFC Championship Game

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    Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning for the right to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLVIII? Yeah, we'll take it. 

    Sometimes, we love when underdogs disrupt the idyllic NFL playoff picture—other times, we love chalk. 

    Brady hasn't played a true road playoff game since the 2006-07 AFC Championship Game against—you guessed it—Manning and co., which led to the one and only time Manning won it all.

    Here's everything you need to know about Brady-Manning Bowl XV between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots. 

What You Need to Know

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    When: Sunday

    Where: Sports Authority Field, Denver, Colo.

    Time: 3 p.m. EST

    Spread (earliest): Broncos, 6.5-point favorites

    Weather: High of 56, low of 30 

    Previous 2013 matchup: Week 12—Patriots 34, Broncos 31

    Noteworthy news and statistics: Per Football Outsiders, the Broncos offense was second in yards per drive and first in points per drive during the regular season. Their defense was 15th in yards allowed per drive and 19th in points allowed per drive. 

    The Patriots offense was seventh in yards per drive and sixth in points per drive. Their defense was 19th in yards allowed per drive and 10th allowed in points per drive. 

    New England finished the regular season with a plus-three turnover differential. Denver's was even. 

    Broncos cornerback Chris Harris suffered a torn ACL in the divisional round win over the San Diego Chargers, per Lindsay Jones of USA Today. He's done for the remainder of the playoffs. 

    According to Shalise Manza Young of The Boston Globe, the Patriots are at peace with their underdog status, following their QB's lead.

    Tom Brady commented, "We’ve got a bunch of underdogs on our team, and we’ll be an underdog again. We’ll see how that shapes up here at the end of the week. But I know that we’re as tough and physical as we’ve ever been, and that’s the way we’re going to need to go out and play this game."

    Running back LeGarrette Blount then said, "If Tom is going to embrace it, I’m going to embrace it. That’s the leader of this team. So if that’s how he feels, I’m sure that’s how most of the guys here feel."

When the Patriots Have the Ball

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    During the 2013 season, all we heard about was the abysmal receiving corps Tom Brady had to work with—a fresh crop of pass-catchers who lacked rapport with the legendary quarterback. 

    Well, quite intelligently, to lessen the impact of a relatively underwhelming grouping of outside weapons, Bill Belichick has run the football. 

    A lot. 

    Facing a variety of pass-stopping defensive fronts that typically feature smaller defenders, the Patriots dedicated themselves to the ground game and found plenty of success. 

    During the regular season, the Patriots finished with the ninth-most rushing attempts (470), the ninth-best yards-per-carry average (4.4) as well as the 12th-most rushing yards per drive, according to Football Outsiders

    In the win over the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round, New England toted the rock a whopping 46 times and accumulated 234 yards with six rushing touchdowns. 

    LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen have formulated a hard-to-manage running back trio with diverse traits. 

    Although the Broncos allowed a stingy 3.9 yards per carry this season and held San Diego's top duo of Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead to 14 carries for 55 yards in their divisional win, don't expect the Patriots to shy away from their run-heavy offensive philosophy. 

    However, Denver will be without cornerback Chris Harris, who tore his ACL against the Chargers; therefore, New England might be inclined to pass more often than usual.

    Brady was 34-of-50 for 344 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in the Week 12 comeback win over the Broncos. 

When the Broncos Have the Ball

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    In Week 12's crushing loss to the Patriots, Manning threw for a mere 150 yards. It was his lowest total since December 2005, discounting the multiple games from which he was purposely sat down to "rest" for the playoffs. 

    With his full arsenal of pass-catching options healthy, expect the Broncos to attempt to exploit the Patriots secondary that allowed the 15th-most passing yards per drive during the regular season. 

    Then again, we can't forgot the run-game demolition Denver put on New England in the Nov. 24 matchup—Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball ran 44 times for 264 yards. 

    However, jumping out to a 24-0 lead gave the Broncos a reason to run it often. 

    During the regular season, Denver's offense equated to almost an exact 60-40 pass-to-run ratio, as Manning threw 675 passes to 461 team rushes (59.4 to 40.6). 

    Without Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes, John Fox's club very well may lean on its running backs to move the chains to balance out the team's prolific passing attack. 

Patriots X-Factor: Jamie Collins, LB

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    Jamie Collins is on the fast track to being a household name, if he isn't one already. 

    The multi-faceted rookie linebacker out of Southern Mississippi has become an integral defensive piece for Bill Belichick. 

    With six tackles, one sack, two quarterback hits and one interception in the divisional round win over the Colts, the 2013 second-round pick was given a massive plus-7.4 grade by Pro Football Focus (subscription required)

    At 6'3'' and 250 pounds with 4.64 speed, Collins has shown coverage capabilities well beyond his years in his debut NFL season. 

    It'll be interesting to monitor how often he matches up with tight end Julius Thomas and how that battle transpires. 

    Though Collins didn't register a sack in 2013, PFF gave him the sixth-highest pass-rushing grade among 4-3 outside linebackers who played at least 25 percent of their respective team's defensive snaps. 

    Whether it's coming off the edge to disrupt Manning, or running down the seam with Thomas, Collins will have an underrated impact on the AFC Championship Game. 

Broncos X-Factor: Danny Trevathan, LB

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    Danny Trevathan played 963 defensive snaps this season—only the now-injured Chris Harris played more. 

    Pro Football Focus graded him as the 11th-best 4-3 outside linebacker in 2013, with a solid grade of plus-6.1. 

    However, the Kentucky product's grade would have been higher had he not turned in a dud against the Patriots in Week 12. 

    His minus-3.1 grade was the lowest of the season, and he played 86 of 88 defensive snaps in defeat. 

    Trevathan hasn't had a game with a negative grade since. 

    With Von Miller, Derek Wolfe, Rahim Moore and Harris sidelined with injury, Trevathan must play better this time around against the Patriots. 

    He's been one of the Broncos' most steady defenders this year, and Denver desperately needs a solid effort out of him in the AFC Championship Game. 

Patriots' Biggest Matchup Advantage: Wideouts vs. Bailey and Jammer

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    With Chris Harris out, the Broncos will turn to the elderly duo of Champ Bailey and Quentin Jammer to play expanded roles against the Patriots. 

    Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola may not be the most intimidating wideouts in the AFC, but they both boast fantastic lateral agility and are terrors in the short passing game. 

    Per Pro Football Focus, Edelman caught 105 passes on 146 targets for a catch percentage of 71.9, the best among receivers who played at least 50 percent of their respective team's snaps in 2013. 

    Though Amendola is similarly sized with a comparable skill set, percentage-wise, he's more of a downfield threat—eight of his 54 receptions went for 20-plus yards, while only nine of Edelman's 105 grabs were for 20 yards or more.

    The Patriots have fallen in love with running the football, and with the way the offensive line has been blocking combined with the way LeGarrette Blount has been running, it's hard to blame them.

    But with PFF's No. 9-rated cornerback not available for the Broncos, don't be surprised if New England takes to the air often. 

Broncos' Biggest Matchup Advantage: Running Game

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    The Broncos can throw it on anybody. 

    Although Manning accumulated only 150 yards in the Week 12 loss to the Patriots, it's extremely hard to imagine that type of pedestrian performance from him again. 

    While Knowshon Moreno likely won't run for 224 yards on 37 carries like he did in that game either, Denver has a distinct advantage running the football against New England's defensive injury-ravaged front seven. 

    A combination of Bill Belichick's defensive genius and the incompetence of the Colts running game led to Indianapolis managing only 3.3 yards per carry in the divisional round loss to the Patriots. 

    Don't expect that stat line to scare the Broncos enough to force them to abandon the run in this one. 

    Guard Louis Vasquez was a first-team All-Pro this season, and Manny Ramirez graded as PFF's eighth-best run-blocker among centers who played at least 50 percent of their respective team's snaps in 2013. 

    A big game from Moreno and Montee Ball will go a long way for the Broncos. 

Prediction: Broncos 35, Patriots 31

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    The Broncos will move on to Super Bowl XLVIII thanks to a balanced attack against a Patriots defense that simply couldn't make its typical game-changing play late. 

    Manning and Brady will both have fine games, but Denver will run it just as well as New England, and John Fox's team has the much more dangerous and complementary receiving corps. 

    Though Collins may keep Julius Thomas from having a monstrous performance, Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker and even Jacob Tamme will just be too much in the second half. 

    The Patriots will connect on a few long passes with Harris out, but they won't have enough firepower to score the five touchdowns needed on the road in Denver.