The New England Patriots and Denver Broncos have been two of the best teams in the AFC all season. Despite major injuries on both sides of the ball for both teams, they have been led by two of the best quarterbacks to battle it out in the AFC Championship Game.
As NFL's official Twitter account points out, several of the last few matchups between Brady and Manning have been close contests:
6 of the last 7 games between Brady & Manning have been decided by 7 pts. or less. The QBs are 3-3 in those games. pic.twitter.com/ggmhB3KrXx— NFL (@nfl) January 16, 2014
If the game does come down to a touchdown or less, like it has so often between these two quarterbacks, the deciding factor could ultimately be one or two players who emerge to post a great performance for their team.
Before the game begins on Sunday afternoon, here are the X-factors for both teams in the AFC Championship Game.
Patriots: Stevan Ridley (running back) and Michael Hoomanawanui (tight end)
The Patriots have emerged as a running team, and it appears LeGarrette Blount has emerged as the lead back. Even though Blount has been strong at the end of the season, New England has gone with a three, sometimes even four, running back system all year long.
Insert Stevan Ridley. Blount's emergence has overshadowed what the third-year back has done lately. With over 50 yards in each of his last three games, Ridley finished with an additional 52 yards and two touchdowns on just 14 carries despite sharing those carries with Blount.
Though he finished third on the team in snaps behind both Shane Vereen and Blount, he appears to be happy with the situation. According to Mike Reiss of ESPN.com, Ridley spoke on a radio show in Boston about the running back rotation:
You look at Blount, who’s 250 [pounds]. I’m coming in myself at 225. Brandon Bolden at 220. Shane is about 215 … we said it early on, at minicamp, that we had four backs that can all get it done. I think a lot of people underestimate our backfield.
When Ridley hits the field, he's typically the speed back that is more elusive than the other three in the stable. With Blount and Bolden serving as the bruisers and Vereen playing the role of the pass-catching back, Ridley's opportunities against the Broncos will be few but effective.
On the receiving front, Michael Hoomanawanui is a tight end thrust into a situation that he certainly didn't expect to be in this late in the season. After Rob Gronkowski suffered an injury that kept him out of the rest of the season, Hoomanawanui was forced to step up in the red zone.
While he's only had four receptions in the last five games, he's going up against a defense that allowed Gronkowski to go off for 90 yards and a touchdown the last time these two teams faced off. Hoomanawanui is far from the pass-catching tight end that Gronkowski is, but his abilities as a blocker in the running game have paid off as of late.
But what Hoomanawanui wants is whatever is best for the team, as with many other athletes in sports. According to Adam Kurkjian of the Boston Herald, Hoomanawanui doesn't care if they're running or passing the ball, he knows he has a job to do:
I prefer whatever is going to help us win. If that’s throwing the ball 50 times, if it’s running the ball 50, 60 times, whatever it is, as long as we come out on top, obviously that’s what we’re looking for. (Run blocking is) definitely something I take pride in. It’s something we take a look at after the game, if we outrush them.
Ultimately, the only thing that matters is if we get more points in the end. Hopefully, we get that done.
While Hoomanawanui might not show up big on the stat sheet at the end of the game—which is tough to do when Brady isn't passing for any touchdowns—his role is certainly a huge one for New England.
Broncos: Montee Ball (running back) and Champ Bailey (cornerback)
Who will be the better running back on Sunday?
At the beginning of the season, scouts and fantasy football owners alike were clamoring over Montee Ball as the lead running back for the Broncos. While that didn't exactly come to fruition for the rookie, he has certainly been a crucial part of the game plan near the end of the season.
Much like Blount and Ridley, the tandem of Knowshon Moreno and Ball has been a successful as of late in Denver. The two combined for 134 rushing yards and a touchdown against the San Diego Chargers and were crucial to earning the divisional round win.
Over the course of the game, Ball put together a few bruising runs that extended drives and led to scores. Albert Breer of NFL.com tweeted about the progression of ball and his possible impact in the postseason during the divisional round game:
Love Montee Ball. Could be a real factor the next few weeks.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) January 12, 2014
Much like Ridley, Ball has put together good performances despite sharing his snaps and touches. With just 10 carries in his last two games, Ball has gone off for an average of 6.2 yards per carry.
Even if he only gets seven carries like he did against the Patriots the last time the two teams faced off, Ball is able to get a good chunk of yards with every carry thanks to his overall average of 4.7 yards per carry.
On the defensive side of the ball, the loss of Chris Harris, Jr. to a torn ACL might be harder to replace than the loss of Von Miller earlier in the season. Luckily, the Broncos have another experienced corner in Champ Bailey that can step in.
Though he has suffered through his own injury issues this season, missed games and was even pulled from a game against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 13, Bailey says he's ready for the opportunity, according to Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com:
I feel like I'm going to do whatever they ask me to do. That is the way I've played it since I came back from the injury, I don't want to force anything. But I feel like I'm ready for whatever is thrown at me.
I'm ready for whatever they want me to do. That is the way I prepare, I've never not prepared like that.
If the Broncos have any hope of making it to the Super Bowl, they will need a good performance by Bailey. Without Harris on the field, Bailey will need to step back in and pick up right where he left off.
But with his confidence clearly back heading into the showdown for the Super Bowl, it looks like Denver might be in good hands.
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