Aqib Talib (left) and Demaryius Thomas (right) could lock horns again on Sunday.
Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning is a nice narrative, but as you might already know, the two future Hall of Famers will never line up across from one another when the New England Patriots face the Denver Broncos for the AFC Championship on Sunday.
Among the more pertinent (and real) matchups will be the Broncos' dynamic receiving corps against the Patriots' physical secondary.
In using that physicality, the Patriots were able to hold Denver's receivers mostly in check. The secondary will have to have another great game if the Patriots want to come away with a win.
|Patriots cornerbacks||Height||Weight||Comp % against||TD allowed||Rating against|
|Aqib Talib||6'1"||205 lbs.||54.1||3||74.0|
|Alfonzo Dennard||5'10"||200 lbs.||49.3||3||70.5|
|Kyle Arrington||5'10"||190 lbs.||60.4||6||102.4|
|Logan Ryan||5'11"||195 lbs.||52.5||3||56.9|
|Broncos wide receivers||Height||Weight||Catch %||TD catches||Target rating|
|Demaryius Thomas||6'3"||229 lbs.||67.6||14||122.6|
|Eric Decker||6'3"||214 lbs.||63.6||11||113.4|
|Wes Welker||5'9"||185 lbs.||66.9||10||106.7|
Sources: NFL.com, ProFootballFocus.com
This is exactly the kind of secondary that can give the Broncos trouble. It can play tight man-to-man coverage for most of the game (although the Patriots will switch up their coverage during the game to give Manning different looks).
Most defenses don't have the depth in the secondary to match up with the Broncos receivers, which makes it necessary to double up on receivers who are giving the Patriots a hard time.
"I think the stats kind of speak for themselves but I think just across the board there are so many weapons between whether it's receivers, running backs, tight ends," Broncos receive Eric Decker said. "Everyone has a different skill set and they do it well. When defenses try to take away a couple guys, the other guys step up."
New England, however, has at least four cornerbacks who can legitimately play man-to-man coverage. The Pats didn't need to devote extra resources to taking a specific player away in the previous meeting. It started with the ability of cornerback Aqib Talib to take away wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, but it was a teamwide mentality of physicality.
With the short throws closed off, the Broncos receivers will have to try to get vertical on the Patriots cornerbacks, and although they certainly aren't devoid of receivers who can get vertical on a defense, their quarterback may be a different story.
Manning now has one of the weakest arms in the NFL amongst starting QBs...but he knows it and compensates— Matt Williamson (@WilliamsonNFL) January 12, 2014
The Broncos receivers are big enough (save for Wes Welker) and tough enough to stand up to the challenge of constant press-man coverage, but even a little disruption can go a long way. Much of Denver's offense is based on quick throws; the Patriots corners like to play a physical game that can wear on the patience of a receiver and disrupt a timing-oriented offense.
"I mean, some receivers don't go for that, but that's my biggest thing: Just try to get my hands on a receiver as much as I can," said cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, "because that's what the coaches want. So whatever the coaches want, I'm gonna just go out there and do it."
On this play, Manning wanted to throw the ball to tight end Virgil Green on the seam route, but he was doubled by a linebacker and a safety. His other three options—Welker, Decker and Demaryius Thomas—were all jammed at the line and covered well by the Patriots corners as they entered their routes.
With defensive end Chandler Jones closing in, Manning had only two options: take the sack or throw the ball away. He chose the latter, and that resulted in an intentional grounding penalty.
So, as we can see, tight man-to-man coverage like what the Patriots provide can prove tough to overcome for Manning and his receivers.
There are drawbacks, of course. If the receiver beats the jam or gets away from press coverage, the cornerback is left in trail technique—essentially playing catch-up as the receiver runs his route. Manning doesn't usually miss an opportunity to target a guy when he sees the back of a defensive back's jersey.
The prospect of facing off against those record-setting receivers (first time in NFL history four players have caught 10 or more touchdowns) might be intimidating for some, but the Patriots corners aren't about to back down.
"I can only speak for myself, but if you don't have [confidence], you're missing the key portion of an edge, just in order for you to play the game," cornerback Kyle Arrington said. "If you don't have confidence, I just don't know how you would be out there if you don't have confidence. That's first and foremost for what's important."
Why shouldn't they be confident? The last time these two teams played, Manning had his lowest completion percentage (52.8) and passer rating (70.4) of the season. It was the only game of the year in which Manning came in below the league average passer rating and one of just three games in which he finished below the league average completion percentage.
Will Manning build off the experience, or will the Patriots? After all, this was the first time either Talib or Logan Ryan had ever faced Manning, and it was only the second time for Dennard and the fourth time for Arrington.
Whichever group does the best job of building off the experiences of the previous game will likely emerge from Denver with a victory and a ticket to the Super Bowl.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.