Broncos vs. Patriots: Why the Broncos Can Stop the Patriots Without Chris Harris

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Broncos vs. Patriots: Why the Broncos Can Stop the Patriots Without Chris Harris
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Chris Harris has played his last game of the year. The Denver Broncos will have two more.

Yes, I said it.

Harris' ACL injury hurt and will continue to hurt the Broncos. That was evidenced by the Denver's defensive breakdown in the fourth quarter against the San Diego Chargers, when it surrendered 17 points and nearly blew a 17-point lead.

Quentin Jammer gave up 95 receiving yards and a touchdown on just 25 snaps, and he was very much a guilty party in allowing the Chargers to come back. Denver held on to win, and it can press the reset button now that it's advanced to the conference championship game.

But still, the team's effort on defense without Harris presents concerns.

The same defensive meltdown occurred earlier this season against the New England Patriots, Denver's AFC Championship Game opponent, when the two teams squared off in Week 12.

Denver built a seemingly insurmountable 24-0 lead in the first half, but Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Denver's star cornerback with 15 passes defensed, was injured on the last play of the first half. Oh, and Champ Bailey missed that game.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady then carved up Jammer and the Denver defense to the tune of 31 second-half points. New England won in overtime.

Denver lost because Rodgers-Cromartie and Bailey were out, and they are in a similar situation in the championship game with Harris out. However, this situation is much more manageable.

With Rodgers-Cromartie and Bailey, Denver can still limit New England's top two receivers. I expect Rodgers-Cromartie to guard Julian Edelman, who caught 105 passes in the regular season. He torched the Broncos for 110 yards and two scores in Week 12, but he will have a harder time in the rematch.

Can Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie shut down Julian Edelman?

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Rodgers-Cromartie, the fourth-highest-rated cover corner in the NFL this year (including the playoffs), can limit big plays and slow down Edelman. He certainly won't duplicate his Week 12 performance, which means Brady will need to rely on other targets.

He might not be able to look to the receiver being guarded by Bailey. That person could be Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins or Danny Amendola (depending on who can play).

Dobson has a foot injury and missed the divisional round game, while Thompkins has a concussion and will have to go through the league's mandatory concussion protocol to play on Sunday. Both can help the Patriots in some way Sunday.

Thompkins hasn't played more than half of the offense's snaps since Week 7, though, so he isn't a huge threat. But Dobson can get deep, and while he has dropped an insane 19.6 percent of his catchable targets, he is a deep threat who can make a play if Denver forgets about him. 

Amendola is New England's third receiver who plays in the slot. On nickel downs, Bailey will likely slide over to cover him. That's because covering the slot is hard, and Denver lacks quality slot corners with Harris out.

Bailey has been decent in the slot, and he can guard Amendola (who had just three catches against Indianapolis and 54 grabs in 12 regular-season games). Bailey's old, but he's fresh and is a 12-time Pro Bowler.

Also, he surrendered just three completions for 27 yards and no scores against San Diego in the divisional game last week. While he didn't shut anyone down, he wasn't bad by any means. If he does the same thing against the struggling Amendola, Brady would have to trust Dobson or Thompkins to get open.

Who should play on nickel downs?

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Those two (or, if both miss the game, Austin Collie) would work against Denver's third corner. That corner could be Jammer, Kayvon Webster, Marquice Cole or Tony Carter.

Webster played for a long time and was mediocre, but he hurt his thumb in Week 15. He might not be completely healthy, but he should at least get some action.

Carter was a stellar cover corner last year, but this year, he has been suspect. He was inactive against San Diego as a healthy scratch, which he has been for most games this year.

Cole was on the Patriots until Dec. 26, and he had an interception during the regular season. However, he was released and had been playing fairly poorly.

Either Cole or Carter will likely be inactive, and the other will probably play little. Look for Webster to see many of the reps, and look for Jammer, who has experience and was actually solid during the regular season, to get a second chance.

This seems bad for the Broncos, but it's actually not a huge issue. Dobson and Thompkins aren't stars, and even Webster and Jammer can guard the two without a huge problem. If they can't, Denver could also slide a safety over to help out Denver's third cornerback.

That might not be necessary, though. In Week 12, both Jammer and Webster played often and Brady didn't torch them. Jammer played 49 snaps and Webster played 54, but it didn't cost the Broncos. Edelman had a huge game because Harris was horrible, but no other Patriot receiver had a huge day.

Rodgers-Cromartie won't let Edelman go off for 110 yards and two touchdowns, and Bailey won't let his receiver have a big day. And considering that New England has poor receivers, even Jammer or Webster can slow down the passing attack.

The numbers back this up. Brady is a solid quarterback, but with the weapons he has (or lack thereof), he hasn't been as good as he's been in the past. He finished 17th in passer rating among 37 quarterbacks, so he hasn't exactly shredded the league.

Oh, and he doesn't have top tight end Rob Gronkowski, who aided him during Week 12 and in six other games.

Can Denver slow down Tom Brady?

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In the divisional round, Brady threw for only 198 yards. Granted, the Patriots rode the run game to victory, but Brady's 78.4 passer rating wasn't exactly amazing. Indianapolis' secondary isn't exactly star studded, so the Broncos, which have a better secondary that does the Colts, can certainly duplicate that effort.

But it will require a great effort and a solid performance from Bailey. It will require a smart game plan from defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. It will require an acceptable performance by Denver's third corner (who would be aided by the absence of Dobson, Thompkins or both).

But it can happen. And even if the Broncos don't do everything perfectly on defense, they should be able to do enough to get to the Super Bowl.

 

*All advanced stats from Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

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