When the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos met in Week 12 at Gillette Stadium, those who were lucky enough to watch viewed one of the most exciting football games of the 2013-14 season.
After the Broncos pulled out to a 24-0 lead, the Patriots rallied, scoring 31-unanswered points before a late Denver touchdown sent the game into overtime. New England eventually won the game with a field goal, completing yet another historic Peyton Manning-versus-Tom Brady matchup.
During the AFC Championship on Sunday, expect to see the same excitement in a very different way.
Since Week 12, these two teams have been dealing with their fair share of injuries and adjustments. Both have evolved accordingly, and each has found new ways to win.
Let's take a look at the major differences for each team that will play a part in why this contest will not resemble what we witnessed when they faced off in late November.
Broncos Run Defense vs. Patriots Running Backs
When these teams met in Week 12, it was Denver that lit it up on the ground, piling up 280 rushing yards on the Patriots. This time around, it will be the Broncos that must step up to defend the versatile Patriots rushing attack.
Due to key injuries to the Patriots passing game, along with the ensuing cold weather, the team has evolved into a run-first offense. Over their last three games played, they have been able to put up some impressive numbers—mainly due to the resurgent LeGarrette Blount:
The Patriots will have their hands full if they expect to continue to post totals like that. The Broncos have boasted a particularly stout run defense in recent weeks. In fact, over their last three contests, they have not given up a 100-yard game to any opponent:
This has quickly turned into a battle of strengths for each team.
The Absence of Rob Gronkowski
All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski put up some impressive numbers over the short span of his 2013 NFL season. While he was active, he faced the Broncos and looked as dangerous as ever. In Week 12, Gronkowski caught seven passes for 90 yards and a touchdown.
This time around, Brady does not have his favorite weapon. Brady threw for 344 yards and three touchdowns against Denver with Gronkowski in the lineup. Since he has been unavailable, the Patriots have made many schematic adjustments.
Of course, a higher reliance on the running game has been stressed; however, there have been significant changes in the passing game as well in recent weeks.
Over their last three games, Brady has not thrown for at least 200 yards. Instead, New England's offense have been relying mainly on short-to-intermediate passing routes to slot receiver Julian Edelman, who has now emerged as Brady's favorite target:
These are not familiar numbers to anyone who has been following Brady for the majority of his career. However, it has been working for the Patriots—they emerged victorious by significant margins in all three of those contests.
Denver is known for a notoriously bad secondary, ranking 27th in the league over the regular season. They took another hit earlier this week when Adam Schefter of ESPN.com reported that Broncos cornerback Chris Harris suffered a torn ACL against the Chargers on Sunday.
Said head coach John Fox of the news:
[Harris] will be out for the remainder of the season. There's no doubt he's one of our better performers on defense this season. ... This team has been resilient, we'll take a next-man-up approach.
If the Patriots do decide to balance the offense with an increased passing attack, Denver will have its hands full with Edelman.
I think Julian Edelman right now is as good an all around player as Wes Welker ever was. #Patriots— Mike Greenberg (@Espngreeny) January 12, 2014
Edelman was the Patriots leading receiver over the regular season, recording 105 receptions for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns. Despite mostly being known for shorter routes, Edelman still ripped off nine receptions of 20-plus yards in 2013—second on the team to Gronkowski.
Despite a recent decline in passing attempts, Edelman has still been very effective for New England:
Denver did not have an answer for Edelman the last time these teams met. He caught nine passes for 110 yards and two scores. Without Gronkowski available this time around, the Broncos must avert all attention to Edelman.
In Week 12, the Broncos were without cornerback Champ Bailey. His presence should afford Denver some much-needed help against the Patriots wide receiver corps.
Julius Thomas Will be a Factor This Time Around
Speaking of tight ends, the Broncos were without Julius Thomas when they played at New England earlier this season. Backup tight end Jacob Tamme filled the void nicely and ended the game as the team's leading receiver with five receptions for 47 yards and a score; however, he does not possess the same dynamics that Thomas has to offer.
Thomas has been a monster this year for Denver, recording 65 receptions for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns over the regular season. His presence on the field allows the Broncos to spread defenses thin, as keeping tabs on all of their weapons becomes a daunting task.
Peyton Manning: 74.5 comp pct, 12 TD, 1 Int when targeting Julius Thomas this season. Thomas missed Denver's Week 12 loss to the Patriots.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 15, 2014
Despite Manning throwing for just 230 yards—his second lowest game total of the season—last week against the Chargers, Thomas was able to come away with a nice performance. He recorded six receptions on seven targets for 76 yards.
New England struggled a bit against opposing tight ends this season. According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots gave up an average of 63.1 yards per game to the position—almost nine yards more per game than the NFL's average.
Patriots Have a Surging Pass Rush
New England was able to tally two sacks when they faced Manning and the Broncos in Week 12. Denver has owned the second-best offensive line in terms of pass protection this season, according to Pro Football Focus (subscribers link).
However, the Patriots have been on fire lately in terms of wreaking havoc in the backfield. Despite linebacker Brandon Spikes's absence this time around—he recorded nine tackles and a fumble recovery in Week 12—the Patriots are still well equipped to pressure Manning.
With a plethora of players who are able to crash the backfield, New England has been on a tear. Taking their last three games as an example, it's easy to see their dominance:
With their devastating pass rush now fully in stride, Manning will find himself under increased pressure this time around.
Other Noteworthy Changes
- Broncos linebacker Von Miller had a monster game in Week 12 against the Patriots, but he is now on season-ending injured reserve.
- Patriots safety Steve Gregory missed the November matchup earlier this season and is now active for Sunday's game.
- Patriots punter Ryan Allen is questionable due to a shoulder injury he suffered against the Colts. However, Mike Reiss of ESPN.com reports that New England is hopeful he will play on Sunday.
- Broncos defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson was able to sack Brady in Week 12; although he has since been placed on season-ending injured reserve.
Which is most likely to happen?
Despite the large amount of changes for both of these teams, they have been able to adjust and adapt—this is why they are the AFC's elite. Both teams are currently on three-game winning streaks and both will be in top form as they strive to get to the big dance.
One thing that remains constant is the fact that we are in for some great football on Sunday.