“Breaking News: AFC Championship Game canceled, replaced by chess match between Peyton Manning and Bill Belichick.”
Relax, that isn’t a real headline. However, a figurative chess match between two of the best minds in football will be unfolding before the eyes of millions this Sunday afternoon in Denver.
The game will be hyped as Manning facing off with arch-nemesis/best-friend Tom Brady and the New England Patriots for the 15th time. In reality, the marquee matchup will be Belichick’s defense versus Manning’s offense and how the pieces are utilized leading up until the final whistle.
With that said, lets take a look at some of the key pieces on the board for these two and how they match up.
Jamie Collins vs. Julius Thomas
Collins, listed at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, came on slowly throughout the season. He followed Belichick’s preferred rookie arc for a front seven player, playing in a reserve role throughout the season while his snap count slowly grew, similar too past draft picks like Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, and Ty Warren. Not until the Divisional round matchup against the Indianapolis Colts had Collins been an every down player, but to say he stepped up would be an understatement.
Thomas, listed at 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, is a playmaker in the mold of a young Antonio Gates. He is a matchup nightmare from the tight end position and provides Manning with a big, agile target that can be a threat at any level of the field. Belichick must slow down the Broncos’ passing attack and although it is impossible to know which player he will focus on, Thomas would be a good place to start.
We saw Collins match up one on one with Colts tight end Coby Fleener and do quite well. His “hybrid linebacker” tag fits not only because of his size and speed, but also because of his history. At Southern Missisipi Collins spent time at safety, defensive end, and outside linebacker. If Belichick trusts him handling Thomas for a healthy portion of the game, it opens up the playbook for Belichick. However, the threat of Thomas only scratches the surface of the Broncos’ offensive capabilities.
Also, it is important to note that Thomas did not play in the regular season matchup. His presence will be felt this time around.
Aqib Talib vs. Demaryius Thomas
There is not much to break down about this matchup. Demaryius Thomas ended the year as a second team all-pro wide receiver. He is the prototype wide-receiver, checking in at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds. Combine that size with a 4.38-second 40-yard-dash, precise route running and elite hands, and what you are left with is a problem for any NFL defense.
Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia could elect to shadow Demaryius Thomas with Aqib Talib. A second team all-pro in his own right, Talib has revitalized his career with the Patriots after falling out of favor in Tampa Bay.
In their week 12 matchup Talib held Demaryius Thomas to 4 catches on 9 targets for 41 yards and one touchdown. Talib was hobbled down the stretch by a hip injury sustained in a week 6 matchup with the New Orleans Saints. He appears to have improved in coverage, but still may not be at 100 percent.
This is a classic matchup of a big, physical corner matched up with a big, explosive receiver. Although the playing style may not be completely similar on the offensive side of the ball, it brings back memories of Ty Law shadowing Marvin Harrison in the early 2000’s when Manning’s Colts would face off with Belichick and the Patriots.
Chandler Jones vs. Chris Clark
The Patriots finished the regular season with 48 sacks, good for fifth in the NFL and the most of Belichick’s tenure in New England. Chandler Jones has been a big part of that, evolving into a complete defensive end while improving in the role for which he was drafted, as a pass rusher. With 11.5 sacks in the regular season Jones finished seventh in the NFL.
Following a season ending foot injury to all-pro left tackle Ryan Clady in week two Chris Clark stepped up to fill the void. He has played well to this point, but tends to fall victim to premium edge rushers. Jones must bring pressure of the edge on Manning’s blindside in order to maximize the efforts of Talib and company in the secondary.
In Sundays Divisional round San Diego Chargers linebacker Melvin Ingram was man handled by Clark. He is more of a power rusher, and was often out worked by Clark in the trenches. We have seen Jones use his speed and length to evade tackles who don’t have quick feet.
Belichick has been known to drop seven into coverage against Manning, clouding his reads and causing him to hesitate. This works best if the Patriots can get pressure with four up front. With Jones coming off the edge providing pressure Manning will rush to diagnose the defense. In such a high stakes game, it could only take one mistake to turn the tide. Look for Jones to create that Broncos mistake.
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