5 Biggest Questions/Concerns for the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship

Cecil Lammey@@cecillammeyContributor IJanuary 16, 2014

5 Biggest Questions/Concerns for the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship

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    Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

    The Denver Broncos are one game away from making their seventh appearance in a Super Bowl. If they can beat the New England Patriots on Sunday, they will be traveling to New York City for the league’s championship game.

    For just the fourth time under the current playoff format (and the first time since 1998), all four teams in the conference championships won 12 or more games in the regular season. That was the year the Broncos beat the Jets in the AFC Championship and went on to defeat the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII. That was the last Super Bowl title the Broncos won.

    The Patriots are playing in the conference championship for the third year in a row. They are no pushover team, and play with a physical style that is tough to stand up to. However, most NFL fans are primarily focused on Peyton Manning versus Tom Brady.

    Manning and Brady have played a combined 30 seasons and won 28 playoff games while their combined age of 74.3 is the oldest ever between opposing starting quarterbacks in a conference championship game. In each of their previous postseason meetings, the winner went on to win the Super Bowl. The only pair of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks to meet more than Brady and Manning is Bart Starr (Packers) and Johnny Unitas (Colts).

    Including the postseason, the Broncos have lost four straight to the Patriots. However, Denver has won two of three postseason matchups versus New England. They won in the 1986 Divisional Playoffs and the 2005 Divisional Playoffs but lost in the 2011 Divisional Playoffs.

    Let’s take a look at the five biggest questions/concerns for the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game.

How Can They Overcome the Loss of Chris Harris?

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    Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

    I was on The Herd with Colin Cowherd this past Tuesday on ESPN Radio. During the interview I told Colin the injury to Chris Harris was more devastating to the Broncos than the loss of Von Miller. This opinion resonated across the country after my statement, and I received a ton of feedback on it via Twitter.

    I said it on @TheHerd & I'll repeat it here. The Chris Harris injury is more devastating to #Broncos than the loss of Von Miller.

    — Cecil Lammey (@cecillammey) January 14, 2014

    The Broncos could turn back to veteran Champ Bailey as a starting outside cornerback. The veteran has battled through a Lisfranc injury this season, and he had been playing as the slot corner since his return a couple of weeks ago.

    Bailey says that he's ready for an increased workload: “Absolutely. I’m ready for whatever they want me to do. That is the way I prepare. I’ve never not prepared like that. It wouldn’t be a surprise if that was the case.”

    Chris Harris went on 102.3 ESPN in Denver and said that he felt it would be Tony Carter that would get more playing time because of his injury.

    #Broncos CB Chris Harris told @1023ESPN that he felt Tony Carter could get more playing time to replace him against the #Patriots

    — Cecil Lammey (@cecillammey) January 15, 2014

    Either way, the Broncos need to do a better job in pass coverage. They have been one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to covering slot receivers. The Patriots' passing game is primarily made up of slot receivers.

    2013 Denver Broncos versus Slot ReceiversNFL Rank
    completions per game7.328th
    yards per game78.428th
    touchdowns1331st (tie)

    This is a huge concern for the Broncos, especially after Philip Rivers went 11-of-15 for 173 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter with Quentin Jammer in for Harris.


Can They Stop the Patriots' Ground Game?

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    Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

    This game may be billed as Peyton Manning versus Tom Brady, but it may actually be more of LeGarrette Blount versus Terrance Knighton.

    The Patriots no longer feature a high-powered passing game. With the loss of Wes Welker in free agency to the Broncos and the injury to Rob Gronkowski, New England has had to reshape and mold its offense in a different way.

    The style that has gotten the Patriots to the AFC Championship is a power-running game. The rushing attack is led by LeGarrette Blount, a former 1,000-yard rusher with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    On Wednesday, Broncos head coach John Fox had something to say about the new-look Patriots offense:

    "I think that they’ve done a tremendous job kind of reinventing as far as the run game. They’ve lost pass-catching tight ends and have incorporated some guys that are doing a really, really good job in the run game." Fox continued, "They roll the whole stable of backs throughout the season. They’ve kind of settled in on [RB] LeGarrette Blount who’s a really physical downhill runner we’re familiar with from his days in Tampa Bay. Bill has adjusted—ithat’s why he’s going to be in the Hall of Fame.”

    The Patriots have really featured the run in their last three games, with Blount tripling his inside-the-tackle rushes-per-game average (6.1 through Week 15, 18.3 since Week 16).

    Blount has an average of 130 rush yards per game inside the tackles since the start of Week 16. This is the most by any player and is also more than 28 of 31 other teams.

    Since Brady’s first season as starter (2001) including the playoffs, New England is 109-18 (.858) when winning the time-of-possession battle. They are 67-39 (.632) when they don’t.

    Using Blount to grind down the time of possession may be the recipe the Patriots want to use against the Broncos. However, a changeup might be in order for Sunday.

Does Bill Belichick Have Something Up His Sleeve?

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    The Broncos are preparing for a power-rushing attack, as that's what the Patriots have transformed their offense into. They should see plenty of LeGarrette Blount as the battering ram for the Patriots offense.

    However, Denver may get something they didn't expect from Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. This surprise could be a heartier passing game then we've seen from New England over the last few weeks.

    In the playoffs we've seen every team run the ball more.

    NFL teams combined for a record 471 passing yards per game in the regular season in 2013. Teams are combining for 265 rush yards per game in the postseason. This is an increase from 226 in the regular season. They are also calling run plays on 42.9 percent of offensive plays, up from 38.7 percent during the regular season.

    With the loss of Chris Harris, the Patriots may feel more comfortable throwing the ball against Denver. They may want to control the clock by using short passes instead of run plays. Don't be surprised if Tom Brady takes a few shots downfield as well.

    The Patriots may want to turn away from the ground game due to turnovers. They lost three fumbles in the first quarter of the Week 17 game against Denver, and the Broncos opened up a quick 17-point lead after those turnovers. New England running backs fumbled seven times (losing five) this season, a mark that tied for second-most in the league.


Can the Broncos Hang on to the Rock?

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    Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

    The Broncos must also take care of the rock if they're going to use more running plays on Sunday.

    In their Week 12 game against the Patriots, the Broncos coughed up the ball five times and lost three fumbles. These fumbles allowed the Patriots to climb back from a 24-point deficit and win the game.

    New England was begging for Denver to run the ball against them in Week 12. In that game, Denver had 47 rushes against six or fewer defenders in the box. This was 14 more than any other team had in a game in the last six years.

    As a team, the Broncos rushed for 281 yards and averaged 6.0 yards per carry in Week 12 against what coaches call an “unloaded” front.

    The Patriots defense has a different look than it did earlier in the year up front. New England’s defensive tackles last Saturday were Chris Jones, Joe Vellano and Sealver Siliga. That's a huge advantage up front for the Broncos. If the Patriots sell out to stop Peyton Manning and let the rushing game beat them, the Broncos' excellent offensive line will take care of business.

    It all comes back to hanging on to the rock. Any turnover can turn the tide of the game. If the Broncos do run the ball, then this may allow the Patriots to hang around. If Denver does build a lead, then it brings up our final (and perhaps most important) question.



Will the Offense Keep Attacking with a Lead?

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    Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

    In the last game against the Patriots, the Broncos gave Knowshon Moreno 37 carries. This was a career-high for Moreno, and 10 more carries than he received in a single game all season long.

    This strategy was effective, as Moreno rushed for over 200 yards in Week 12. However, the team did not win. That's something they can't afford only one win away from the Super Bowl.

    The Patriots had success in Week 12 when making Peyton Manning hold on to the ball. He averaged a whopping (for him) 3.09 seconds before the pass against the Patriots. This marked his third-highest average of the season and longer than his 2.87 average against other teams.

    When Manning held on to the ball for less than three seconds, he was 17-of-28 (60.7 percent) with 150 yards passing, two touchdowns and no sacks.

    When the Patriots jammed the Broncos' timing and made Manning hold the ball for at least three seconds, he was 2-of-8 passing for zero yards, an interception and two sacks.

    The Broncos built a 24-point lead against the Patriots, but a hyper-conservative offense cost them the game. This time around, the Broncos need to keep their foot on the accelerator of the offense. That "gas pedal" is known as the passing game.

    They may want to strive for balance on paper, but in reality the gamescript could unfold in such a way they would be best served to open things up as much as possible on offense.

    The team is built around Manning. They should throw out any conservative nature and put the pedal to the metal on Sunday.


    Note: All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.