Both the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos have endured their share of hardships en route to the AFC Championship Game. Injuries, player absences and serious medical issues on the Broncos' sidelines have all played the role of impediment for these two teams.
As the game approaches, the concerns are aplenty, but the following represents the biggest issue for each team.
Can the Broncos Overcome the Absence of Von Miller?
Peyton Manning, Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase and head coach John Fox must game-plan to find a way to attack the New England Patriots' defense, but Denver's biggest problem will be overcoming the absence of Von Miller.
The Broncos lost their do-it-all linebacker to a torn ACL on Dec. 22.
Without Miller, Denver managed to beat the Oakland Raiders in the regular season finale and the San Diego Chargers in the divisional playoff round, but as the competition stiffens, he'll be missed even more.
When Miller went down, Broncos cornerback Chris Harris told Mike Klis of The Denver Post:
We've been through a lot of adversity on the defensive side of the ball. We're missing a lot of guys. We still have to keep that 'next man up' mentality. Nate Irving, I think he'll come in and do a solid job. But a guy like Von Miller, you can't replace what he can do on the field.
Robert Ayers and Shaun Phillips have been trying to fill the void in passing situations, but it is difficult to recreate Miller's impact as a pass-rusher. Denver did a great job of putting pressure on Philip Rivers in its first playoff game, but the Patriots' attack is a different animal.
Most recently, New England has transformed itself into a power running team. LeGarrette Blount has rushed for 355 yards and six touchdowns in the team's last two games. With so much success in the running game, the Patriots' play-action pass could be a major weapon for the team moving forward.
With this threat established, experienced and dynamic players who are equally adept at defending the pass and run are important. Miller's read-and-react skills, play recognition and physicality can't be duplicated.
Miller kidded with the Twitterverse about a speedy return after surgery on his knee, but Broncos Nation wishes he wasn't kidding.
When the two teams met on Nov. 24 in New England, the Patriots came back from a 24-0 deficit to win 34-31 in overtime; however, before things got crazy, Miller was dominating.
Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus (subscription required) shares Miller's stellar PFF rating from that game:
Miller had two sacks, a fumble recovery and 60-yard return for a score, eight tackles and three hits on Tom Brady. If that's not making an impact, I don't know what is.
Yes, both teams have a ton of injuries on both sides of the ball, but none is bigger than the absence of Miller. We'll see if his replacements can pick up his slack against the Patriots.
Can New England Stop the Broncos' Run Game?
The Patriots aren't the only team that decided to show their opponents there's more to their attack than a Hall of Fame quarterback.
Against the San Diego Chargers, the Broncos ran the ball 33 times for 133 yards and a touchdown. Manning threw just 36 passes in the game.
That type of run-pass balance wasn't commonplace for Denver during the regular season. In 10 of their 16 regular-season games, the Broncos threw the ball 10-plus times more than they ran it.
The only game in which Denver ran the ball more than they threw it was against the Patriots in Week 12. The Broncos had 48 rushing attempts in that game for 280 yards, both of which were season highs for the Broncos.
Knowshon Moreno had 224 of those yards, along with a score.
It was also the most yards the Patriots surrendered on the ground.
New England can't afford to get punched in the mouth like that again on Sunday.
Doug Kyed of NESN.com said he believes the emergence of Sealver Siliga could make a big difference against the Broncos' run game, writing:
Siliga now is starting at the nose next to Jones, and the Patriots’ run defense has been transformed. The Broncos know Siliga well—he was on their team during the 2011 and 2012 seasons (primarily on the practice squad) and for training camp in 2013. Denver fans might not believe Siliga can be such a difference-maker, nor should they. But he has been one.
Siliga is able to take on double teams, which Jones and Vellano could not, and he’s actually been a playmaker in the middle of the defense, recording three sacks and many run stops.
Whether Siliga can make a substantial impact in this area remains to be seen. What we know is what happened to New England in the first meeting and how the run defense performed all season.
The Pats were ranked 30th in the NFL against the run during the regular season.
If New England can't stop the run, it's going to create all types of issues once Manning starts taking shots down the field.
The winner of this game will be the team that is able to hide its weakness the best.
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