AFC Championship Game 2014: Ground Game More Pivotal Than Epic QB Showdown

Richard LangfordCorrespondent IJanuary 15, 2014

FOXBORO, MA - OCTOBER 07:  Stevan Ridley #22 of the New England Patriots runs with the ball around Wesley Woodyard #52 of the Denver Broncos in the second half during the game on October 7, 2012 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

With Peyton Manning and Tom Brady about to offer up an epic installment of what is arguably the greatest quarterback rivalry in the history of the NFL, it is hard to focus on anything but those two legends.

Oct 7, 2012; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) shakes hands with Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) following the game at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Broncos 31-21. Mandatory Credit: Stew Miln
Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

The crazy reality of all this: The rushing game is more pivotal than either legend lining up under center.

For the Patriots and their fans, this idea is not completely foreign. With an unspectacular and unpolished group of receivers, Brady and the passing game were not nearly as reliable weapons as in past seasons.

Brady finished the year with 4,343 passing yards gained at an average of 6.9 yards per pass. He added 25 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and had a quarterback rating of 87.3.

This is the second-fewest passing yards for Brady since returning from knee surgery for the 2009 season. It is also his fewest yards per pass and touchdown passes, and his lowest QB rating, in that span. In fact—not counting the 2008 season, when he played in just one game and got injuredthat is his lowest quarterback rating since the 2003 season.

All of this led to the Patriots finishing 10th in the NFL in passing yards. New England finished the season an even more unimpressive 17th in yards per pass.

Meanwhile, New England finished the season ninth in both rushing yards per game and per attempt.

Things have shifted to the run so much that the Patriots scored six touchdowns last week, and not one came via a Brady pass.

So the notion of relying on a run-based offense is not foreign to the Patriots and their fans. Broncos fans, however, may need a passport before they begin to fathom that concept.

Manning looked as good as ever under center this past season. He has a host of talented weapons to get the ball to, and he finished the season with the second-best quarterback rating of his career. He also just so happened to throw for more yards and touchdowns this past season than any other quarterback to step foot on an NFL field.

Manning has had so much success this season that he has had just two starts where he did not throw for at least 266 yards.

Those two starts, however, happen to be the two most pertinent to this weekend's game. They were last week against the Chargers and Week 12 against the Patriots.

FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 24: Quarterback Peyton Manning #18 of the Denver Broncos is pressured by defensive end Rob Ninkovich #50 of the New England Patriots during a game at Gillette Stadium on November 24, 2013 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jim Ro
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

While guiding the Broncos to victory over the San Diego Chargers in the divisional round, Manning was 25-of-36 for 230 yards and two touchdowns. Meanwhile, the Broncos carried the ball 34 times for 133 yards.

Manning came up big with two touchdown passes and two key third-down completions late in the game to help seal the win, but the Broncos looked to run as much as possible. And that is exactly what they did the first time they faced New England.

In that game, Manning went 19-of-36 for just 150 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Behind 37 carries for 224 yards from Knowshon Moreno and 280 yards as a team on the ground, the Broncos didn't need Manning to produce a ton of yards.

Nov 24, 2013; Foxborough, MA, USA; Denver Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno (27) runs against New England Patriots during overtime at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Broncos 34-31. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports
Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, all of that also couldn't help the Broncos from blowing a massive lead and then losing in overtime on a special-teams blunder.

The Broncos big, early lead in that game forced the Patriots to take to the air. As a result, Brady had one of his more productive games of the season with 344 passing yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. 

Barring the Patriots falling behind by a large amount in this game, I wouldn't expect Brady to get anywhere near the 50 attempts he had in that game. For one, Brady had the services of Rob Gronkowski in that game, and the tight end is done for the season with injury.

Also, last week Brady had just 25 pass attempts and the Patriots would gladly take that kind of workload for Brady once again.

It will not be easy for the Patriots to run in this game. 

Terrance Knighton has been a beat in the run game for Denver.
Terrance Knighton has been a beat in the run game for Denver.Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

The Broncos finished the season ranked fifth in rush defense and seventh in yards allowed per rush. In the first game against New England, the Patriots rushed for 116 yards gained at an average of just 3.7 yards per carry.

Denver has had its ups and downs on rush defense this year, but it finished the season strong, and limited a surging Chargers rush offense to just 86 rushing yards and an average of 3.6 yards per carry.

Of course, The Boston Globe's Ben Volin doesn't think that defensive effort will be enough against the Patriots: 

Meanwhile, the Patriots' rush defense did not suffer the same kinds of ups and downs this year, but that was because they spent the season being down. New England finished the year 28th in rushing yards allowed per game and 24th in yards allowed per rush.

These numbers are not surprising given the Patriots' health woes. New England will ride into this game with, among others, defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly and linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes all on injured reserve.   

Not that Brady seems overly concerned about the injuries. "We've got a bunch of underdogs on our team," Brady was quoted by the Associated Press (via The Denver Post) as saying, "and we'll be an underdog again."

This has left the Patriots with a patchwork defense up the middle, but it is still a group that appears to be making improvements.

Last week, the Patriots held the Indianapolis Colts to 69 rushing yards on 21 carries, and the Colts finished the season eight spots ahead of the Broncos in yards per rush attempt. 

If one team can gain an edge in the running game, they will have an easy path to victory, and it will be tough for either quarterback to make up for that disadvantage given the other team will be controlling the ball.

I wouldn't put it past this game to come down to the wire. In that case, it will invariably come down to a couple of plays from the quarterbacks in the closing moments, but it will still be the running games that dictate the way the game plays out.