By now, nobody is questioning Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning's ability to beat any defense he faces. Indeed, his opponents in the AFC Championship Game, the New England Patriots, haven't exactly dominated against the pass, allowing 239 passing yards per game, 18th in the NFL.
But while Manning should inevitably have another solid performance against the Pats on Sunday, it's Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno who really gives Denver the advantage.
In the last matchup between these two teams in Week 12, Moreno had the game of his life. He rushed for 224 yards and a touchdown, despite a rushing long of only 18 yards. That means he showed consistent production throughout the game, which nevertheless resulted in a 34-31 overtime victory for the Patriots.
Don't expect another 200-yard game from Moreno. New England will undoubtedly make adjustments, as it will work hard to prevent Moreno from running hog-wild over defenders like in the last matchup.
But Moreno will still have an excellent game: The Patriots can't afford to stack up against the run, thanks to Manning's presence. If the Pats do focus on containing Moreno and force Manning to beat them through the air, they'll undoubtedly have a long day. (In case you forgot, Manning set the single-season record for passing yards and touchdowns this season.)
Better yet, the Patriots struggle immensely at stopping the run. They ranked 30th in the NFL in that category during the regular season, allowing 134.1 rushing yards per game, and they don't figure to do much better on Sunday.
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In fact, they'll probably do worse, thanks to Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes being on injured reserve. Better yet for the Broncos, Pats defensive tackle Vince Wilfork is out for the season with a right Achilles tear. As one can tell from their struggles against the run, the Patriots have yet to find a viable replacement for Wilfork, who is one of the premier tackles in the league.
But Moreno's value goes beyond simply compiling yards; that only tells part of the tale. The Broncos running back has also shown a knack for finding the end zone, which proves particularly valuable in the red zone because opponents can't focus on simply defending Manning.
As a matter of fact, Moreno scored 13 times during the regular season, including 10 times on the ground, though he fell off a bit as the season wore on, with just a pair of rushing touchdowns in his final nine games.
But all three of his receiving touchdowns came during that nine-game span, and he also re-discovered his touch by scoring a key fourth-quarter rushing touchdown against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday that proved to be the difference in the game.
Knowshon Moreno was able to "hammer the rock through the teeth of the Chargers defense right up the gut." - Trent Dilfer— MileHighReport (@MileHighReport) January 13, 2014
With the Patriots' struggles against the run thanks to key injuries, combined with Manning's presence behind center, Moreno should have no trouble running all over the Patriots, just like last time. That should be enough to make the difference on Sunday.