AFC Championship Game 2016: Patriots vs. Broncos Comments and Stat Predictions

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistJanuary 23, 2016

Denver defensive end Antonio Smith
Denver defensive end Antonio SmithDoug Pensinger/Getty Images

The drill has become a familiar one by now in the NFL.

Coaches and players begrudgingly fulfill their media obligations and regularly say nothing of any value about themselves or their opponents.

None are better at it than New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, at least by reputation. But Belichick's opponents this week are not following the usual game plan. The Denver Broncos spouted off about the defending Super Bowl champions earlier in the week, and there has been no backing down or no retractions.

Broncos defensive end Antonio Smith labeled the Patriots quarterback as a crybaby.

“I’ve never seen any quarterback look to the referee right after he gets sacked more than [Tom] Brady,” Smith told the Denver media (h/t Sports Xchange and CBS Denver). “Every time he gets sacked he looks at the ref like, ‘You see him sack me? Was that supposed to happen? He did it a little hard. Please throw a 15-yard penalty on him. Get him fined.'”

Denver linebacker Brandon Marshall, the team's second-leading tackler with 102 stops, took the hand-off from Smith and added fuel to the fire.

“From what I heard how he talked to the refs in our first game, that’s exactly what I think he was doing,” Marshall said. “He was crying.”

Chris Harris
Chris HarrisJack Dempsey/Associated Press

The Broncos didn't limit their complaints to Brady. Cornerback Chris Harris said the Broncos have to go for Rob Gronkowski's legs when they attempt to take out the big tight end.

"You gotta hit him low, man—hit him in his knees," Harris said in an ESPN interview (h/t Business Insider). "That's the best chance you have of hitting him. You gotta take his legs out or hold on and wait for everybody, wait for the gang to come on and gang tackle him." 

While some might interpret Harris's remarks as a threat to try to injure Gronkowski, Marshall said the key to limiting his production is playing a physical game against him.

“You definitely want to be physical, I think, within the five-yard mark ” Marshall told Julian Benbow of the Boston Globe. “You don’t want to get a flag, but you want to put hands on him because the guy is like a freight train running at you. He’s a big body, so you want to be physical, and you want to be on him. It’s a tough matchup, but I think we’re all equipped for it.”

The Patriots have primarily been quiet and focused on the game and have generally not been interested in responding to the Denver remarks. However, Gronkowski responded with a juvenile tweet when he heard about Harris's remarks

Heard their whole team is good at giving low blows 😜🏈

— Rob Gronkowski (@RobGronkowski) January 19, 2016

While many associate quarterbacks Brady and Peyton Manning with high-scoring, offensive games, the Broncos don't appear interested in playing a high-scoring game.

Manning has slowed down quite a bit and threw just nine touchdown passes this season (along with 17 interceptions), and it doesn't seem like it would be in the Broncos' interest to get involved in a high-scoring track meet here.

They will want to run the ball with C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman, and let their defense dictate the pace of the game by harassing Brady.

The Patriots don't have much of a running game as a result of injuries to running backs LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis. They have excellent receiving weapons in Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, and they will try to exploit those weapons.

The team that is most successful at implementing its pace probably has the best chance of winning, but there have been many examples of a game plan changing as the game unfolds.

Here's how we see the statistical outcome for this game:

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 16:  Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots gestures after a play in the fourth quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs during the AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Gillette Stadium on January 16, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Pho
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Brady will get decent protection from his offensive line, and he will take advantage of Edelman's quickness off the line and hit a few key throws early. That will get his confidence up, and Brady will complete 28-of-38 throws for 275 yards and two touchdowns. 

Edelman will catch eight passes for 79 yards and a touchdown, while Gronkowski will catch five passes for 85 yards and a score. Edelman will catch four passes for 44 yards.

Veteran running back Steven Jackson will have seven carries for 40 yards and one touchdown.

On the Denver side, Manning will have a difficult day, completing 10 of 22 passes for 135 yards with one TD and two interceptions. 

Anderson will show off his breakaway ability and will gain 95 yards on 18 carries and score one touchdown, while Hillman will be held to 45 yards on 14 attempts. 

Big-play wideout Demaryius Thomas will catch five passes for 66 yards and get into the end zone.

In the end, the Patriots will come away with the 24-20 win and earn a trip to Super Bowl 50.