Well then, here we are.
On the other side of a far tamer, but no less clarifying, divisional round than we expected, there’s something right about our conference championships. On the West Coast, the Seahawks and 49ers, teams with underdog QBs with abundant charisma and speed to burn, infamously tough defenses, and two of the more entertaining coaches in the NFL, will finally face off, a rivalry that seems to be a decade old, even though this is only Year 2 of Wilson vs. Kaepernick.
Here on the AFC, that sense of predetermined drama is even stronger. This is the FIFTEENTH game between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Brady has the historic edge of 10-4, and the New England Patriots stole a 34-31 OT win over Denver earlier this season.
But the overall narrative (one that is somewhat rational) favors Manning. He’s the QB resurrected from a neck injury, cast aside by his former team, only to come back better and stronger in the Mile High Season. He’s had the more recent Super Bowl win. He’s the one with three star wide receivers (Welker, D. Thomas, Decker) who have helped him achieve record-breaking offensive success. He’s the one who, despite an absolutely masterful career, might find his legacy permanently damaged by another failed playoff run.
Brady? To be perfectly honest, the Patriots are kinda lucky to be here. In a season decimated by injury and replete with ugly last minute wins, the fact that they ended up 12-4 is a downright miracle. But that’s not to say that the Patriots are a pushover. Far from it. They’ve been here before, and they’ve flourished here before.
But enough of that. Here are some non-Brady-vs-Manning-centric thoughts leading up to Sunday’s epic showdown.
1. How different will New England’s game plan be this time around?
This one’s a real puzzler. In their earlier game this season, the Patriots had to go almost entirely by the pass, playing from behind for much of the game. But two crucial personnel changes will almost certainly alter that plan: 1) There’s no Rob Gronkowski (7 catches, 90 yards, TD) to be Brady’s safe target down the field. And 2) This was pre-rejuvenation for LeGarrette “Winnebago” Blount. In case you’ve been under a rock, dude’s been playing out of his gourd, racking up 431 yards on 64 carries (6.7 YPV) with 8 TD in just the last three games. The Broncos have a much tougher run defense than the Colts, for example, but it’s hard to see the Pats abandoning their run-heavy offense, especially seeing how wonderfully it opened up the play-action game.
On the other side of the ball, the Pats basically let Knowshown Moreno have a one man field day last time, allowing him to run for 224 yards on 37 carries, instead focusing on limiting any production from Manning’s trio of receivers (Combined 9 receptions for 77 yards on 21 targets). With the secondary having an impressive game against Andrew Luck, it’ll be interesting to see if Belichick will go that route again.
2. LeGarrette Blount has my new favorite nickname, thanks to Shannon Sharpe.
Seriously. Winnebago. It’s perfect. It will stick. It will be shouted from sports bars across the Northeast. Crazy fans will stick fake dreadlocks onto the tops of their winnebagos. This is the greatest journalistic contribution of Sharpe’s career, and if I were him (I wish) I’m almost as proud of it as I am of my three Super Bowl rings. Could not be happier with this.
3. Jamie Collins is a beast, and will need to be a beast again.
Damn. 6 tackles, 1 sack, two tackles for loss, three QB hits, and one interception. In a playoff game, in his rookie season, against Andrew Luck. We are all impressed.
If Collins can replicate his success from this past weekend on Sunday, that’s a huge weight off of the Pats’ collective backs. Collins, who played safety as well as linebacker/defensive end in college, is a dangerous pass-defense asset, and if he can play Broncos tight end Julius Thomas (who was absent in the last game) one on one, then Aqib Talib and the Pats safeties can focus elsewhere.
4. Getting Healthy
It’s no great secret that the weaker area of the Denver defense is its secondary. Despite a strong game against Phillip Rivers and the Chargers, this is a banged up unit (standout corner Chris Harris left the game early and one-time-superstar Champ Bailey has been relegated to a part-time role) and one that has struggled to stop quarterbacks consistently all year. The question is, can the Patriots take advantage of it? With Aaron Dobson still getting over a foot injury and Kenbrell Thompkins getting knocked out of Saturday’s game, this leaves the Patriots with a rather diminutive WR group, both in size and stature (though obviously not in spirit. Minitron 4 MVP). The Patriots were able to exploit some blown Colts coverages and the strength of their play-action plays for some long throws to Edelman and Amendola, but that’s not something we can rely on. It’s quite possible that the Patriots may comb through the current free agents for a WR body to put on the field next to Edelman, Amendola, and Collie (please, Jabar Gaffney?).
5. (Why can’t there be any) Stormy Weather.
If only the Pats were the 1-seed. Sunday’s forecast in Denver? Mild, temperatures in the fifties, some wind. In Foxborough? 20s, wind, chance of rain. Which would we all rather have? Freezing cold! Rain! Hail! The Pats have a cold-weather team, plain and simple, especially with a new found passion for running the ball. That’s one more possible advantage taken away. Oh well.
So I’ll be back on Friday with my normal, slightly more coherent preview for the AFC title bout. Until then, keep checking iSportsWeb for news updates and commentary on the upcoming NFL Playoff games!