AFC Championship Game 2014: Biggest X-Factor for Patriots and Broncos

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistJanuary 19, 2014

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 12:  Julius Thomas #80 of the Denver Broncos tries to avoid the tackle of  Marcus Gilchrist #38 of the San Diego Chargers during the AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 12, 2014 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It wouldn’t exactly be going out on a limb to say Peyton Manning and Tom Brady will have a monumental impact on the AFC Championship Game when the Denver Broncos welcome the New England Patriots.

We are talking about two of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the NFL and arguably the two players who define this generation. Brady holds a 10-4 career record in head-to-head showdowns with Manning, but Manning will enjoy the home-field advantage and a litany of offensive weapons at his disposal.

FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 24: Quarterback Peyton Manning #18 of the Denver Broncos and quarterback Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots shake hands after the New England Patriots defeated the Denver Broncos 34-31 in overtime at Gillette Stadium on Novem
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Brady on the other hand is dealing with injuries across the board for the Patriots, yet somehow he and Bill Belichick continue to guide this franchise to impressive heights. 

Brady, who will be playing in an astounding eighth AFC Championship contest, discussed the adversity his team has had to battle through with ESPN in a preview piece:

“I'm sure no one's going to pick us to win this week. We've had our backs against the wall for a while. Really, the whole season we've lost players, and teams have really counted us out."

While Manning versus Brady will certainly be the overarching storyline before and after the showdown, the deciding factor could be something that is unexpected. Be it a special teams play, a critical turnover or an under-the-radar player making a critical play in the fourth quarter, playoff games have a funny way of surprising us even after an entire year of football.

With that in mind, let’s dig into a discussion about the biggest X-Factor for each team.


New England Patriots: LeGarrette Blount

It is rare in recent years for New England to have a bona-fide No. 1 running back option. Just ask fantasy football players what they think of Belichick’s tendency to rotate his running backs so regularly.

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 11:  LeGarrette Blount #29 of the New England Patriots runs the ball against the Indianapolis Colts during the AFC Divisional Playoff game at Gillette Stadium on January 11, 2014 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Image
Elsa/Getty Images

However, the Patriots may have just that going forward in former Oregon Duck LeGarrette Blount.

Blount tallied 772 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the season, but he completely dominated the Indianapolis Colts in the Divisional Round. The bruising running back totaled 166 yards rushing and four touchdowns and probably could have scored at least one more had Belichick left him in the game near the goal line.

It was a continuation of Blount’s last two regular season games against Buffalo and Baltimore, where he dashed the Bills for 189 rushing yards and two touchdowns and the Ravens for 76 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

If Blount can find a way to attack Denver’s underrated run defense (which ranks eighth in the league in opposing rushing yards allowed), the Patriots won’t be so one-dimensional in the AFC title clash. It could also set up the play-action pass, which could be potentially lethal against the Broncos’ leaky secondary that gave up the 27th most passing yards a game. 

Furthermore, Blount is the primary kickoff returner for New England, and a special teams play could change the tide of what will likely be a tightly fought contest. 


Denver Broncos: Julius Thomas

Just looking at the list of receivers that Manning has at his disposal would make almost any quarterback to ever play incredibly jealous.

Wes Welker, Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas make up arguably the best trio of wide receivers in the league, but tight end Julius Thomas is often overlooked. However, considering his 788 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns in only 14 games in 2013, he really shouldn’t be.

The dangerous thing about Thomas is his ability to create mismatches all over the field. Few linebackers, if any, have the consistent speed to keep up with him in open space, and many safeties don’t have the size to guard him one-on-one. We are talking about a New England secondary that was 18th in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game, which means Thomas should be able to create these mismatches in Denver.

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 12:   Julius Thomas #80 of the Denver Broncos carries the ball against Jahleel Addae #37 of the San Diego Chargers during the AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 12, 2014 in Denver, Colorado.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

New England beat Denver in the regular season, but Thomas missed that game, which allowed the Patriots to focus more of their attention on stopping the dynamic receivers. With both Thomas and the wideouts on the field together, New England will have to pick its poison with its defensive strategy and sets.

It is also worth noting that 698 of Thomas’ 788 receiving yards came in Broncos victories this season. That means that when Thomas produces, the team frequently enjoys success as well.

Don’t be surprised if the equation holds up one more time against the Patriots.