The Denver Broncos will host the New England Patriots on Sunday, Jan. 19th at 3 p.m. ET as four-point favorites at Bovada and numerous other places. That line has shrunk since it opened and rightfully so; these two teams are closely matched.
We all have our picks (I happen to think the Patriots will win outright), but in the end, doesn't this game feel like it is going to come down to the last possession?
If it does turn out to be lopsided, it will be because one of the teams executed in the following keys and the other team failed in its key tasks. Let's hope both deliver in these areas and we see Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in the greatest installment of their epic rivalry.
Perform in the Run Game
With Manning and Brady ushering these two teams into the championship round, the biggest point of emphasis has to be on air traffic, right? Oddly, no.
Manning and Brady remain the two most pivotal players in this matchup, but both teams are only going to throw as much as they have to.
Sure, Manning and the Broncos are coming off a record-breaking season through the air, but look at last week's divisional-round game against the San Diego Chargers.
Manning played sensationally. He was 25-of-36 for 230 yards and two touchdowns. He also completed two huge third-down passes to help seal the win. His performance, however, was not prolific. That's because the Broncos carried the ball 34 times, and it's not like they were running all over the Chargers. They rushed for 133 yards.
That showing was far more balanced than the Broncos' output in their 34-31 loss to the Patriots in Week 12. In that game, Manning went 19-of-36 for just 150 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Knowshon Moreno stole the show that night by taking 37 carries for 224 yards. Overall, the Broncos rushed for 280 yards as a team.
Bill Belichick gave Manning almost nothing but nickel and dime looks on defense, and the Broncos ran all over them.
I wouldn't expect it to be much different this time around. Not just because of Manning's ability to beat them in the pass game but because of the emergence of massive defensive tackle Sealver Siliga and the other rag-tag defenders the injury-ravaged Patriots are relying on.
The Patriots appear to be feeding off their new no-name identity. Tom Brady, as quoted by the Associated Press (via The Denver Post), offered this up to the press: "We've got a bunch of underdogs on our team, and we'll be an underdog again."
Those underdogs held the Indianapolis Colts to 69 rushing yards on 21 carries.
Meanwhile, the Broncos' rush defense also looked strong last week. San Diego had been steamrolling opponents on the ground, and Denver held it to 86 rushing yards and an average of 3.6 yards per carry.
That rush defense will have to be excellent again because the Patriots' rush offense has been strong, and it's only getting stronger. New England has never needed Brady to do less.
With the spotlight directly on the men under center, the biggest battle is going to be in the trenches.
Denver Must Play D for 60 Minutes
This key falls in the no-brainer department. Well, it should at least, but with the Broncos, we can start breaking down what the word means.
I think we all remember last year's late-game defensive meltdown against the Baltimore Ravens that knocked the Broncos out of the playoffs.
Then, had Manning not completed those late-game third-down passes I mentioned above, someone else on Denver's defense may have become the new Rahim Moore (i.e. the guy who makes a play so bad he is a goat among goats) against the Chargers last week.
The Broncos were ahead of the Chargers 17-0 at halftime. In the second half, San Diego shifted from its run-heavy approach to an aerial attack featuring sensational rookie Keenan Allen. The problem for Denver was that it was still playing defense like San Diego was going to run every play. It wasn't pretty.
Denver won't get away with any lapses like that this week.
New England's Receivers Must Make Plays
Part of the reason that the Patriots have developed such a wonderful rushing attack is that Brady is not working with many weapons in the passing game.
Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are decent options in the passing game, but when they lead the team in receiving, it's not a good sign.
For @toytrain56: D. Thomas, Welker, Decker= 1303 rec, 16126 yds, 113 TD in reg season. Edelman, Amendola, Dobson= 461 rec, 4648 yds, 27 TD.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 15, 2014
That doesn't mean these guys can't or won't make big plays.
They were solid last week, combining to grab nine passes for 161 yards on 14 targets. That last part is key. These two have to be efficient and reliable weapons.
Of course, the flip side of this is that the Broncos have been poor on pass defense this season, and that is only going to be worse now that cornerback Chris Harris is unavailable due to injury:
In 990 snaps with Chris Harris on the field, DEN allowed a 43.6 QBR. In 81 snaps with Harris on the sideline, DEN allowed a 93.0 QBR— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 13, 2014
This has Denver experts agreeing that this mighty-mouse duo is key:
With Brady throwing fewer passes than ever, the ones that he does throw are even more pivotal. He has to be able to rely on this blue-collar duo.