5 X-Factors Who Could Win the AFC Championship for the Denver Broncos
Not only will we see Denver quarterback Peyton Manning face off against New England signal-caller Tom Brady for the 15th time in their stellar careers, but we will also see the AFC's two best teams of the season fight for a bid to the Super Bowl.
For the Broncos, big games are to be expected from studs like Manning, wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, and running back Knowshon Moreno, yet the 53-man roster will need help elsewhere in order to walk away victorious.
Here are five X-factors who could assure a victory and a Super Bowl trip to New Jersey for the Denver Broncos on Sunday.
1. WR Eric Decker
Denver Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker is one of the league's most head-scratching players.
Externally, he appears as much of a star as any other player in the league. He's married to beautiful country singer Jessie James, has a reality TV show and has numerous female (and male) Broncos fans swooning over him every Sunday.
Here comes the mystery, however; one game, Decker posts eight receptions for 117 yards and a touchdown, like he did against the Tennessee Titans in Week 14, yet he follows that performance with a two catch, 42-yard stinker (Week 15 against the San Diego Chargers).
There's no denying that quarterback Peyton Manning likes to find Decker, yet with so many reliable receiving options, it's tough for Decker to be a solid week-to-week player.
Regardless, Denver is a stronger team when Decker can post a strong game; this means catching all his targets from Manning and gaining solid yardage on his punt returns.
2. CB Quentin Jammer
As my fellow Bleacher Report writer Christopher Hansen noted in a great article this week, the loss of cornerback Chris Harris Jr. is a serious setback for the Denver Broncos defense.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Denver defense has allowed an opposing QBR of 43.6 with Harris on the field and a whopping opposing QBR of 93.0 when he is on the sidelines.
To put it nicely, Quentin Jammer looked awful in Denver's 24-17 win over the San Diego Chargers this past Sunday. He was beaten repeatedly by San Diego wide receiver Keenan Allen, and at critical moments in the game, no less.
This Sunday will be Jammer's chance to reprove his worth.
While veteran cornerback Champ Bailey has officially replaced Harris on the depth chart, Jammer will see a significant increase in playing time, as no one is expecting the 35-year-old Bailey to play every snap.
3. KR Trindon Holliday
Denver Broncos' kick returner Trindon Holliday ranked as the league's ninth-best kick returner in total yardage this season, racking up 775 yards on only 28 returns and averaging 27.7 yards per return.
The little man (5'5") is lightning fast and tough to catch when he breaks loose. If he could do this against New England Patriots on Sunday, in what is sure to be a close game, it could clinch the victory for the Broncos.
The Patriots, however, have defended kick returns well this season, allowing no touchdowns and only 20.8 yards per return, on average, according to ESPN.
If Holliday can expose this solid special teams defense, it could change the outcome of the game.
4. DT Terrance Knighton
The Denver Broncos defensive line has surely heard this name a lot this week: LeGarrette Blount.
The New England Patriots running back exploded last week against the Indianapolis Colts, rushing for 166 yards and four touchdowns on 24 carries.
This comes after, mind you, back-to-back games of 76 yards and two scores and 189 yards and two touchdowns, in Weeks 16 and 17, respectively.
One thing is for sure, the Patriots are no longer only a passing team, and they can win on the ground. It will be up to Denver defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, along with rookie DT Sylvester Williams, to clog up the middle and hopefully stop Blount or Stevan Ridley.
Knighton has played well for the Broncos this season, yet Blount has been playing out of his mind. If he and Williams can take the back out of the game, New England quarterback Tom Brady and the rest of his offense may start to panic a bit.
5. K Matt Prater
Denver Broncos kicker Matt Prater has been an absolute gem. Prater is reliable, accurate and consistent, and this season he made 25 of his 26 field goal attempts.
To list him as an X-factor is almost cruel, as he really is a stud, yet the job of an NFL kicker is a cruel one, and the pressure is always on.
In last Sunday's win over the San Diego Chargers, Prater sent a 45-yard field goal through the uprights, yet he missed on another attempt. In a game that is sure to be close, and with the New England Patriots boasting a kicker as solid as Stephen Gostkowski, (93 percent on field-goal attempts this year, according to ESPN) Prater can't be off his game.
To demand perfection is cruel; yet once again, so is the job of an NFL kicker.