Just as many predicted before the season began, the AFC Championship game will pit Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning, for the third time. The Broncos and Patriots have clearly been the two best teams in the AFC throughout this entire year, and it is only fitting that they get to decide who will advance to Super Bowl 48.
The last time these two teams met, was in week 12 of the regular season, in what was arguably the best game of 2013. Denver jumped out to a 24-0 halftime lead, but Brady led the Pats back, eventually winning on a 31 yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal. I expect Sunday’s game to provide us with just as much action, and while I don’t expect something that dramatic, it will definitely be a fun game.
Here are six things that I believe the Pats will have to do, to move on to the Super Bowl.
1. Stay Balanced
By now, if you don’t know about the legend of LeGarrette Blount, then you probably have been living under a rock over the past month. Blount has injected new life into the New England running attack, making it an extremely lethal weapon. The combination of him, Stevan Ridley, and a terrific run blocking offensive line has made life very difficult for opposing defenses as of late, and getting them going again next week will be key. Denver’s secondary isn’t very good, and the front seven is actually decent. But falling into the trap of trying to out-gun Peyton Manning in his house isn’t a good idea, which is why the Patriots must stay balanced on the offensive side of the ball. This will allow them to control the clock, hopefully gain big yardage on the ground, and it will open up a lot of opportunities for Brady and company in the back end.
2. Make Knowshon Moreno Beat You
In their last matchup, the Patriots were strictly in their nickel package, which allowed Knowshon Moreno to have a career day on the ground, totaling 224 yards on 37 carries. New England can’t let that happen again, but I do think that the general concept is correct. If the Broncos are going to beat you, don’t let Peyton Manning do it, because we all know that he is capable. Instead, take away the passing game, and force Moreno to lead Denver, because even though he may rack up a lot of yards, I don’t think that just Moreno would be enough to take down the Pats. The Patriots match up pretty well in the secondary, as Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard have shown that they have the necessary tools to lock up Demaryius Thomas, and Eric Decker, and Kyle Arrington can take Wes Welker in the slot. Rookie Logan Ryan has had a phenomenal rookie season, and I fully expect Bill Belichick to use him throughout the game. Safeties Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory were good in the regular season, but they struggled on Saturday against the Colts. But I am confident that they will bounce back this week, specifically in limiting the explosive plays down-field.
3. Chandler Jones And Rob Ninkovich Must Rise Up
Beating Peyton Manning entails much more than simply having good coverage. If you give him enough time, he would find an open receiver against a secondary with five Deion Sanders. So getting pressure is important. Even more important, is getting pressure without bringing a blitz, because guys like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady thrive off of getting blitzed. This places an immense amount of pressure on Chandler Jones, and Rob Ninkovich. Both had solid 2013 campaigns, and it is now time for them (mostly Jones) to show us that they are ready to perform in the biggest moments. Jones is the better pass rusher, as he racked up 11.5 sacks this year, but Ninkovich is the grizzled veteran, and he knows how to get it done in the postseason. If these two can pressure Manning right from the start, it will throw his rythm off, and when you combine that with solid coverage, you will slow down this Denver aerial assault.
4. Protect Brady
Denver will be without star pass rusher Von Miller (two sacks in Nov. 24) in this game, which makes the job of the New England offensive lineman much easier. Miller was the Broncos’ best pass rusher, and without him, they struggle to get to the quarterback. Shaun Phillips is the next best guy Denver has, but if the tackles of the Patriots are able to corral him (Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon), Brady should be fine. With that being said, the interior of the Patriots offensive line has had some bad games this year, and they can’t allow the middle of the Broncos defense to get up in Brady’s grill. Establishing the run makes protecting Brady even easier, which is another reason to give the ball to Blount and Ridley as much as possible.
5. Touchdowns, Not Field Goals
The Patriots were 5-6 in the red zone this past weekend against the Colts, and that efficiency is a big reason why they won. Punching it in for touchdowns is something that is extremely important when playing Peyton Manning, because you have to score a lot of points to beat him. All six of New England’s touchdowns against Indianapolis were running touchdowns, and when Brady’s bunch gets into the red zone this week, I expect them to continue their ground attack, because that seems to be the best way to score touchdowns without Rob Gronkowski.
6. No Turnovers
If the Patriots hadn’t fumbled the ball on their first three possessions back in November, they might have blown out these Broncos. The weather is supposed to be nice in the rematch, which gives New England no excuses for turning the ball over. They rely on a lot of runs, making it imperative that the running backs hang onto the football. The Pats should be able to move the ball with relative ease against Denver, but they can’t afford to cough up the ball, and give Peyton extra possessions.