New England Patriots: AFC Title Game Preview/Prediction

The New England Patriots make their merry way to Denver, CO to take on the Peyton Manning-led Broncos. The game will be shown this Sunday at 3 PM on CBS. Jim Nantz and Phil Simms will lend their melodious tones to the proceedings, and hopefully Shannon Sharpe will continue to call LeGarrette Blount “Winnebago.”

Well, then. Here we go.

This is the way it should be. After seven years off, we get another AFC Championship between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Last week, I wrote an article detailing five points for the upcoming game that had nothing to do with the quarterback duel, but make no mistake. This is what everyone will be and should be talking about: Brady vs. Manning (or Manning vs Belichick/Brady vs. Fox, whichever you’d like).

But of course there’s so much more this game to just a QB-on-QB matchup. To say that Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are the quintessential faces of football of their generation is an understatement: even though they’ve only got four rings between them, they’ve flat-out dominated the game (though Aaron Rodgers is certainly stepping up to take the reins). The debate between who is the best of the two has raged on and on for years, and the winner of this game may walk away the winner of their eternal war (Well…probably not. It’ll keep going on and on)

But just as important is the narrative of these two teams for the 13-14 season.

Let’s consider the Broncos first. Peyton Manning is almost certainly the MVP Of this season (though it would be hard to vote against not just Tom Brady, but Jamaal Charles) after setting new NFL records for passing touchdowns and yards. The team as a whole put up a new NFL record for points scored and went 13-3 in the regular season, despite season-ending injuries to star players (Ryan Clady, Von Miller) and the shocking health scare that John Fox suffered mid-season. They looked…vulnerable against the Chargers and, of course, were defeated by the Patriots in their earlier meeting. That being said, the Broncos are still the most frightening team in the AFC, and have overcome all adversity to be an unstoppable offensive juggernaut.

Of course, adversity might as well be the Pats’ middle name. 11 of the Patriots’ 16 games were decided by a touchdown or less, including all four of their losses. This is a team that flourishes with their backs against the walls as evidenced by their wins in Buffalo, New Orleans, Denver, and Cleveland. Of course, the team has had the chips stacked against them, as it were. All three of Tom Brady’s top receivers from last season won’t be wearing a Patriots uniform this game. Rob Gronkowski is out for the season, the less said about Aaron Hernandez the better, and Wes Welker…well, Wes Welker will be wearing a Broncos uniform. Defensive stalwarts Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, and Brandon Spikes are gone. So is Sebastian Vollmer.

Yet here they are, and here we are. Set to watch the record breakers and the limpers, the Evil Empire and a new one, Brady and Manning. And oh, what a game it will be.

Let’s move closer.

 

Key Matchup: Jamie Collins vs. Julius Thomas

First, let’s all stand up from our computers (portable or otherwise) and applaud Jamie Collins. The dude had a solid rookie season, but has come on like gangbusters lately, especially in a standout game against the Colts. The stats are impressive (the sack, the pick, the 6 tackles), but even more so was his performance going one-on-one against Coby Fleener, an athletic tight end who had played with Luck since college, arguably his favorite target.

images (1)Bill Belichick and the Patriots will be hoping that Jamie Collins can pull the same stunt twice, this time against Broncos tight end Julius Thomas. The third-year player out of Portland State has had a pretty remarkable season, with 65 receptions for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns, in what has essentially been his first year as a pass-catcher. Whether his success should be attributed to his outstanding talent or to the simple fact that defenses are forced to leave him unattended due to the three star receivers playing next to him is irrelevant: Manning is good enough to make anyone a star.

So, to that point, if Collins can handle Thomas on his own, with perhaps Steve Gregory shadowing over the top, that makes life a lot easier on the Patriots’ defense. Aqib Talib can stick on Demaryius Thomas again, Logan Ryan or Alfonzo Dennard can match up with Eric Decker, and Kyle Arrington can handle Welker in the slot. Should Collins not be up to the task, the Patriots may not be able to find an answer to stop the Broncos’ aerial attack.

So yeah. This matchup is important.

 

3 Questions

  1. Will the Patriots stick with their recent offensive game plan?

Who would’ve ever thought that the Brady-era Patriots would ever turn into a run-first team. To thank for this change in style is, along with the generally cold/wet weather, is the man they call Winnebago. LeGarrette Blount has had 431 yards, 6.7 YPC, and 8 TD in his last three games alone. As a refresher, last time the two teams played, Blount rushed twice for 13 yards, fumbling the ball early in the game.

downloadThe Broncos have a strong run defense (but then again I said the same about Buffalo) while their secondary has struggled and seem set to struggle some more with the loss of top corner Chris Harris. This points to the Patriots passing the ball like it’s no tomorrow, but it would be a mistake to abandon the run entirely. McDaniels needs to stay just as disciplined as he was against Indianapolis, and utilize Blount’s brute strength, not just because he’s at the top of his game, but because it will open up the play-action, Tom Brady’s bread and butter.

 

2. Will the Pats be playing with their rookie offensive starters?

Last week, punter Ryan Allen and wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins suffered injuries that knocked them out of the game entirely. Aaron Dobson missed the entire game with his foot injury. Strange as it may be, the Patriots’ success could depend on the status of all three.

images (2)The most disruptive absence would be Allen, who’s having a terrific season, but banged up his shoulder on a botched snap that ended in a Colts season. Stephen Gostkowski filled in on punts, while Tom Brady held on field goals. The latter is troubling, as no one wants Tom Brady’s hands near Gostkowski’s feet in any situation. Gostkowski punted quite admirably against the Colts, but the Pats would rather have their traditional punter any day of the week.

The missing wideouts would also be problematic for a few reasons. One, Thompkins and Dobson are the two receivers more prone to producing big plays, and they also represent the two tallest receivers on the depth chart. More importantly, with the high altitude, receivers and running backs can get gassed easily. New England, of course, has the running back rotation set, with Blount, Ridley, and Vereen. At wideout, however, the Pats are set at the moment with Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Austin Collie….and that’s it. That’s a problem. The Patriots need bodies to go toe to toe with a dynamic Broncos offense, not to mention two very talented rookies in Dobson and Thompkins.

3. Can the pass rush get after Manning?

The second biggest battle (beside the Pats’ secondary vs. the Denver receeivers) is at the Broncos’ line of scrimmage, in a matchup that should be a fun one. The Broncos’ offensive line has been dynamite all season, despite season-ending injuries to Ryan Clady and Dan Koppen, strongest at the center of the line. The Pats did get some pressure on Manning in the first game, especially Chandler Jones who had two QB hits and a sack.

460xWith the Broncos almost certainly focused on running the ball, Chris Jones and Seaver Siliga, while solid pass-rushers, may not be looking to collapse the pocket too much. The Pats could see big games from Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, however, who have done great jobs in setting the edge and using their nifty moves to get to the QB.

The Patriots don’t have the weather on their side this time to make Manning uncomfortable, which means they’re going to have to hit him and throw off his timing. The more time he has, the more he’ll dissect the defense.

 

Prediction: Patriots 40, Broncos 38

Yes, I’m a homer. But the Patriots have shown over their last three games that they can put up points with the rest of them, even without big days from Tom Brady. There’s not much that can be taken from the last game (the “additions” of Blount and Thomas offset each other, the wacky turnovers probably won’t reoccur) except that both teams can never be entirely counted out.

The Patriots are underdogs, and you can bet that bites at Belichick and his team, that chip on their shoulders even bigger this time around. If they can keep up their running prowess, and reduce the passing attack like they did before, they’ve got as good a shot as any. While the Broncos were looking to punch their Super Bowl ticket in Week 1, the Patriots have managed to outjump every massive obstacle placed in their way. I think they can jump one more.

High-scoring game, but the Pats squeak it out, and return east for the Tundra Bowl.