By: Steve Balestrieri
Well here we go, the Final Four of the NFL is here and the cream has risen to the top, and the winners of next weekend’s games are heading to the Super Bowl in the Meadowlands in February.
The Patriots and the Broncos are the matchup that many predicted WOULDN’T happen this season as New England wasn’t supposed to be here at this point this season. Many of the experts didn’t even have the Patriots winning their own division this year but once again, they’re here and for the eighth time in the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady watch will be playing for the conference championship to go to the Super Bowl.
The game will be played in Denver on Sunday at 3 p.m. EST and the long range weather forecast for the game is calling for near perfect conditions with temps in the low 50s with only a 20 percent chance of any precipitation.
The Patriots (13-4) dispatched the Indianapolis Colts 43-22, breaking open a close game in the fourth quarter using a power running game spearheaded by LaGarrette Blount who rushed for 166 yards and four touchdowns. With six rushing touchdowns in the game, it wasn’t dependent on Tom Brady to throw for the Patriots to win.
The Broncos (14-3) defeated the San Diego Chargers 24-17 in Denver on Sunday. Peyton Manning threw two touchdown passes and the Broncos dominated through three quarters holding the Bolts to only 76 yards offense. San Diego mounted a comeback in the fourth quarter before Manning hit on several third downs to close out the game.
Since the teams have already met in the regular season, here are our Five Second Impressions of the Denver Broncos:
Broncos Offense Will Be Full Capacity Sunday: The Broncos are operating with all of their skill players in place for Sunday’s game. Wes Welker has returned from his concussion and wearing a larger protective helmet and TE Julius Thomas who missed the first meeting with an injury will be back. Thomas was a big part of the Denver offense this season hauling in nearly 800 yards receiving on 65 catches.
After having some success against Coby Fleener on Saturday night it will bear watching if the Patriots put rookie Jamie Collins on Thomas Sunday afternoon. With the game in Denver and a trip to NJ waiting in the wings (sounds different) for the Super Bowl, Manning will have a full complement of weapons at his disposal.
Defensive Numbers Don’t Tell The Whole Story: When looking at the Broncos defense there is a big difference in the numbers allowed by their rushing defense and their pass defense. But don’t be fooled by their disparity.
Denver’s pass defense ranked 27th allowing 254.4 yards per game while their rush defense allowed only 101.6 yards per game which is good for 7th in the NFL. So should the Patriots abandon the run and air it out on Sunday? The answer is…not so fast because both numbers tend to be a bit skewed when you look at game circumstances.
Are the Broncos the 27th worst pass defense in the league? No they’re not, if you look at their games this season the Denver offense was moving the ball and scoring at a prodigious rate. They set a new NFL record for points scored during a season. When that happens, opponents are going to have to air it out in an attempt to keep up. And while they gave up a lot of yards passing, they faced a lot more passes dictated by them being in front as often as they were as well as by so much.
On the flip side, they probably aren’t the 7th best rush defense in the league either. The same circumstances which dictated opponents must throw more to keep up, also kept teams from sticking with the running game which relies on reps to make it more effective.
Chris Price our friend and frequent guest on our PatsFans podcast pointed out that in their three losses the Broncos allowed 414 yards which averaged out to 138 yards per game. In the earlier meeting between the two teams, LaGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley had a combined total of only 6 carries for 27 yards (of NE’s 116) between them as the Patriots got into an early hole and needed Brady to air it out to get back into the game.
The defense probably falls somewhere in the middle of where the numbers lie which leads to the second point…
Jack Del Rio Must Be Having Nightmares This Week: The numbers Tom Brady has enjoyed against Jack Del Rio’s defenses are well known. And while five of the seven games that people are using as stats came when Del Rio was coaching the Jaguars, it is worth noting that in some of those years, the Jaguars had a top 10 defense.
But looking at a sample of the past two games when Del Rio coached the Broncos and essentially the same team that will take the field on Sunday, the numbers are still impressive. In two games against the Broncos defense coached by Del Rio Brady has completed 57 of 81 passes (70%) for 577 yards with 4 touchdowns and 0 interceptions for a QB rating of 106.8. Coupled with New England running the football for 367 yards in those two games, it’s safe to say that Del Rio will be burning the midnight oil this week.
Unlike the Broncos offense, the defense will be missing two key pieces on Sunday. Von Miller tore his ACL and was lost for the season. Miller had two sacks and fumble return for 60 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting. And CB Chris Harris tore his ACL during Sunday’s win over San Diego and is also done for the year. Veteran Quentin Jammer struggled badly in his stead but with a week’s preparation should be more ready to step in his place.
Special Teams Will Have To Be Better This Time: In the first meeting Denver’s special teams play cost them the game. Trindon Holliday struggled returning kicks and had only 36 yards in three returns, each for only 12 yards which is far below what is expected from him. He also had a costly muffed punt at the end of the first half that may have resulted in more points for his team already up by 24 at the time.
Holliday was replaced by Wes Welker in the punt return game but he was only able to get 13 yards on two punts but Welker, who hadn’t been active in the return game much this season provided an even more costly gaffe. In overtime while fielding a Ryan Allen punt, Welker was late in calling for a fair catch and waving off his own players. The ball bounced hitting Tony Carter and the Patriots recovered and kicked the winning field goal.
The Broncos will need a much better result from the return units this time around and it will start with the dangerous Holliday who returned both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown this season. He narrowly missed one against San Diego but had a 105 yard kick return wiped out with a penalty.
This One May Come Down To Coaching: These two teams know each other pretty well for opponents outside of their own divisions. This will be the second meeting this season and the fifth in the past three years. With that said, neither team should do much that will surprise the other; it may come down to the coaches to decide the outcome.
While everyone is making this another Manning – Brady duel, the fact is that they won’t be on the field at the same time and it is a team effort and the one best prepared will come out on top.
John Fox and the aforementioned Del Rio will be locking horns with Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels and with two good, well coached teams it may come down to who will adjust better on the fly.
Fox and Belichick are two of the better coaches in the business and although are different in their approaches, they both bring a lot to the table. Fox has been a head coach for 12 seasons (3 in Denver, 9 in Carolina) and has brought his team to the playoffs in six of those seasons including all three in Denver. In his second season in Carolina he was the head coach of the Panther team that lost to the Patriots on a last second field goal in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
But even open heart surgery in November hasn’t slowed down Fox’s quest for his first ring. He and Belichick won’t be afraid to make decisions on the fly and neither coaches not to lose. This one will bear watching as well.