By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots travel to Mile High to take on the Denver Broncos in the 2013 AFC Championship Game. This will be the second meeting between the two teams this season and the winner goes to the Super Bowl in NJ against the winner of the SF – Seattle game.
The game will be broadcast by CBS with their top team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms handling the play-by-play and analyst duties, kickoff is scheduled for 3:05 p.m.
The Patriots the #2 seed(13-4) got here by defeating the Indianapolis Colts in the Divisional Round 43-22 in Foxboro. LaGarrett Blount spearheaded a big New England running game as the Pats rolled up 234 yards on the ground.
The Broncos, the #1 seed (14-3) defeated the San Diego Chargers 24-17 in the Divisional Round in Denver. Peyton Manning tossed a pair of touchdowns and the defense completely shut down the Bolts for three quarters.
We here at PatsFans.com are going to try something a little bit different this season. Our new weekly column, the “Razor’s Edge” gives a quick break down on some of the key matchups of the game and what to look for in how the game plays out.
Bill Belichick will be looking to upset the heavily favored Broncos on the road this week.
(USA TODAY Images)
This has been a series that has gone back and forth but largely dominated by Denver, especially at home as the Broncos hold a 27-20 overall lead including the playoffs but a decisive 19-8 record at home.
However the Patriots have won the last four meetings including this year’s 34-31 OT game in Foxboro at the end of November, where New England came back from a 24-0 halftime deficit behind a big performance from Tom Brady.
The Patriots offense has gone through another major change during the last month, in part because of weather conditions and in part because of injuries as well as riding a hot hand. They’ve become a much more physical, grind it out running offense behind LaGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley.
Blount in particular has been outstanding especially in the latter stages of games as he’s been able to wear down teams and break off big runs at crunch time. Ridley has chipped in with some strong running of his own and the Patriots the past couple of games have run more than they’ve passed.
The health of the wide receiving core has also had something to do with that as well. Rob Gronkowski was lost to IR with an ACL injury, Aaron Dobson has had a lingering foot issue that has kept him out of practice for the past two weeks and Kenbrell Thompkins has had hip and concussion issues. That’s left Brady with Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen out of the backfield. The team re-signed Austin Collie but really need Dobson and Thompkins on the field this week.
Patriots RBs vs Broncos Front Seven- NE 129.1 YPG, 4.4 YPC Edge Patriots
The Patriots committment to running the football has been very successful, LaGarrette Blount has been outstanding down the stretch, last week running for 166 yards and 4 touchdowns against the Colts. He, Ridley and Vereen provide a three-headed attack that all bring different elements into play.
Denver’s front seven led by Terrance Knighton and Malik Jackson are very good at stopping runs at the point of attack and allowing LBs Danny Trevathan, Paris Lenon and Nate Irving to flow to the ball to make plays. Denver will miss DE Derek Wolfe who was placed on IR this week, Wolfe has been suffering from seizures and has only practiced a couple of times since Nov. 29.
Look for New England, unlike the Chargers to run right at the defense and try to get the bigger Blount to the second level. The Bolts tried to run outside which played into the speed of the Denver defense. New England ran for 114 yards in the first meeting but only had six carries combined from Blount and Ridley
Patriots WRs vs Broncos Secondary- NE 255 YPG Edge Patriots
Patriots QB Tom Brady numbers against Jack Del Rio’s defenses have been emphasized for awhile and this season’s earlier meeting was no different. But in shredding the back end of the secondary in November Brady had Gronkowski stretching the field and providing matchup nightmares for the safeties.
Julian Edelman has been very reliable all season and the team will need Danny Amendola, Austin Collie and especially Shane Vereen out of the backfield to be very effective this time around. Dobson and Thompkins are questionable to play at this point and will be big losses if they can’t go. Vereen has been disappointing down the stretch and needs to turn it around and start catching the ball more frequently out of the backfield.
Denver’s defense has Champ Bailey back but lost Von Miller and CB Chris Harris to IR which are big blows to the defense. Shaun Phillips is the outside pressure pass rusher now, Denver will look to flood the middle and take away those crossing routes and clog up Brady’s favorite lanes to throw.
Bill Belichick has always been one of the best at being a game plan specific coach. No one changes their identity more quickly than New England. Look for the Patriots to come out throwing early in this one and try to set up the run. The balance this week should be much closer to 50/50 pass and running unlike the past few games.
Aqib Talib will need a strong game for the Patriots secondary on Sunday.
(USA TODAY Images)
The Patriots defense has been a walking MASH unit all season having already lost four starters from the front seven to IR. The secondary has been equally hit hard, all three starting cornerbacks, Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington have been playing hurt for most of the season. Safety Steve Gregory missed time with a broken thumb and Devin McCourty had a concussion down the stretch.
They’ve had issues stopping the run all season but yet remain the #10 scoring defense in the league allowing only 21.1 points per game. It speaks of the team’s resiliency and the coaching of Belichick.
Broncos RBs vs NE Front Seven- DEN 117.1 YPG, 4.0YPA Edge Broncos
In the first meeting Knowshon Moreno had a huge game rushing for 224 of Denver’s 280 yards on the ground as the Patriots practically invited Peyton Manning to hand-off due to weather conditions that made it difficult to throw outside the numbers. Moreno and Montee Ball combined rushed for 134 yards last week against San Diego, as Manning mixed things up well.
New England found a keeper in Sealver Siliga who has played well at NT the past month but the loss of Brandon Spikes may raise its head this week. Sealver’s emergence has helped stabilize the rush defense. Now he and Donta’ Hightower will be looked to inside to stop the running inside. The Patriots did a good job against the weak running game of the Colts last week but the Broncos running game presents a more difficult nut to crack.
While the Patriots will still probably play the majority of this game in nickel, don’t look for that inviting look where DEs Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich split wide to the outside. Expect them to give a more traditional look on the line.
Broncos WRs vs NE Secondary- DEN 340 YPG Edge Broncos
Peyton Manning had a career record setting year passing for nearly 5500 yards and 55 touchdowns, he has a very diverse, talented and most important …healthy wide receiver core with Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and TE Julius Thomas as well as Moreno and Ball out of the backfield. Julius Thomas (65 recepts) missed the first meeting with a knee injury and could be a big factor, especially on third down, Welker is recovered from his concussions and is back playing albeit with a Spaceballs-type helmet to protect him.
The Patriots secondary is as healthy as it’s going to be at this point of the season and it will an “All hands on Deck” scenario for with all the weapons at his disposal, Manning will be tough to stop. The NE pass rush becomes all important this week. Not only Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich outside but youngsters like Chris Jones inside will have to bring pressure and disrupt the timing. Last week it was containment first on Andrew Luck, this week the pass rushers have to get after Manning and force him off of his spot.
How do the Patriots try to stop Manning with that record setting offense this week? Look for the Patriots to try to disguise many of their coverages, moving players around on occasion but mainly they’ll try to jam at the line of scrimmage and by very physical. It worked well in the first meeting but this is nothing Manning hasn’t seen before. It will come down to producing on the field. Look for rookie Jamie Collins to matchup with TE Julius Thomas. Collins did a good job on Coby Fleener last week and easily had his best game of the season.
Special Teams- Edge Broncos
The Broncos have the edge in the return game with the very dangerous Trindan Holliday who returns both kicks and punts and has taken one of each to the house this season. He had one called back last week and Eric Decker came close to breaking one as well. The Patriots however have had excellent coverage units all season, led by STs leader Matthew Slater. Holliday had a very poor game in New England earlier this year and would love to make amends at home on the big stage.
The Patriots would love to have some boost from their return game this week, Julian Edelman has been kept in check lately and Blount who had a big game against Buffalo hasn’t done much else. Denver’s kickoff coverage hasn’t been stellar but with Matt Prater putting it in the end zone, it hasn’t been a major issue.
Kicking game is about even with Prater and Stephen Gostkowski for the Patriots.Both will probably kick the ball out of the end zone in the thin air. New England has a slight advantage in the punting game but with Ryan Allen suffering from a shoulder injury its unclear how that will affect him on Sunday.
Patriots Player to Watch- Danny Amendola
Amendola has had his moments this season turning in some outstanding games, he’s also had some where he fell off the radar. This week he’s going to be needed to step up in a big way because with no Gronkowski, and possibly no Dobson or Thompkins, Tom Brady will need everyone left to contribute in a big way.
If Amendola can step up and give Brady a reliable, consistent second option this week, it will go a long way in ensuring the Patriots offense is operating at peak performance this week.
With Brady only completing 13 passes last week against the Colts, Amendola caught just three passes but for 77 yards. He’ll need to have more catches this week as New England will be throwing the ball more, especially from the outset.
While most of the country is picking the Broncos to win this one and move on to the Super Bowl, it shouldn’t be a walk in the park. If there is one thing that this New England team has shown, it is that it is resilient and battle tested as they’ve been in numerous close games and this young Belichick squad plays a full 60 minutes.
In all of the Brady – Manning matchups thru the years, Manning has never had the scale tipped so far in his favor in relation to offensive weapons at his disposal, but one mustn’t look past the success that Brady has had against Jack Del Rio’s defenses. And that, is something that can’t be discounted. Ready for one more fantastic finish? Patriots 31-30
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