The New England Patriots are the consensus underdogs for Sunday’s AFC Championship in Denver, despite winning their most recent matchup in Week 12. If the Patriots are to sweep the Broncos for the season, they will need to do two things successfully: run the ball and protect it.
Throughout the 2013 season, the Denver Broncos have put up historic offensive numbers, and have been heralded as one of the most prolific offenses in recent league history. Nevertheless, the San Diego Chargers, Indianapolis Colts and the Patriots found two common tactical approaches used to defeat the Denver Broncos—winning the turnover battle and proficiently running the football.
First, each of the three teams when beating Denver had fewer turnovers than the Broncos: Colts (one turnover to three for the Broncos), Patriots (three to four) and Chargers (zero to one). Moreover, of Denver’s 14 wins, only once did they lose the turnover battle to a top-10 offense and still win the game (vs. Kansas City Chiefs in Week 11).
If the Broncos turn the ball over more than the Patriots, the third highest-scoring offense in league, they will again have a difficult time keeping pace with the Tom Brady-led offense.
Second, each team rushed for over 115 yards against Denver: The Colts rushed for 121 yards, while the Patriots and Chargers rushed for 116 and 177 yards, respectively. Furthermore, 10 of the Broncos' 14 wins have been against opponents that rushed for less than 115 yards.
Similarly, the Patriots had little success this season when they rushed for fewer than 115 yards in a game; this includes all four of their losses. Additionally, they had only three of their 13 wins (23 percent) when rushing for under 115 yards.
Of course, these statistics are only correlations; they do not imply causation. Yet, they do suggest that controlling the clock and field position with an effective running game has been an effective strategy against Denver.
To facilitate this sort of ground attack, the Patriots will need to heavily rely on the north-and-south running of LeGarrette Blount, with the assistance third-down back Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley spelling Blount.
In his past three games, Blount has used his bulldozer-like running power and solid burst to lead the league in rushing yards (145 rushing yards per game) and rushing touchdowns (eight). Simply put, Blount is capable of gashing the Denver defense and helping New England control the line of scrimmage and keep the ball away from the Broncos offense.
If the New England running back platoon is able to move the chains and protect the ball on Sunday, Manning will have less time to pick apart the New England secondary. But, if they fail, Manning will have many more offensive opportunities to rack up points, and Brady will have to rely more on trying air out the ball to his lackluster receiving corps.
New England doesn't want to take part in that sort of shootout.
It’s now clear that the AFC Championship Game is much more than the Tom Brady-Peyton Manning showdown that has been heavily advertised by many pundits. Rather, it’s a game that will be decided on the ground and in the trenches, and LeGarrette Blount could be the deciding factor.