There are many different matchups that will decide Sunday’s game in Denver, and we will start with the Broncos wideouts, versus the Patriots defensive backfield. Stay updated on Musket Fire all week long, as we will bring you extensive coverage of all the matchups in this AFC Championship tilt.
At an initial glance, you would probably think that Denver’s offensive weapons blow New England’s corners and safeties out of the water. Not only did the Broncos have the best offense in football this year, but they arguably had the best offense in the history of football. Meanwhile on the other side, you have a team that ranked in the middle of the NFL in pass defense (18th), and only 10th in points allowed. However if you dive deeper into each individual matchup, I could make a solid case saying that the Pats defensive backs have an edge over the receivers in Denver.
Aqib Talib vs. Demaryius Thomas
The last time these two teams met, Talib shut down Thomas for most of the football game. Talib’s size and physicality make it extremely hard for bigger receivers like Thomas to get open, and that is exactly what happened on November 24th. However as all good receivers do, Thomas eventually was able to make a few plays, as he finished the game with four catches, for 41 yards, and a touchdown. But overall, I would say that Talib won that battle, and I think he can win it again this Sunday.
Eric Decker vs. Alfonzo Dennard
Dennard was only on the field for 21 snaps in the regular season matchup in November, so we can’t really take any previous knowledge of these two going at it, and applying it to this week’s contest. However I have been watching Dennard play for quite some time now, and when healthy, he is one of the best there is in man coverage. He plays aggressive, and he rarely allows the opposing receiver to gain any separation in the open field. The only weakness he has is his height, which is something that the taller Decker should exploit. Dennard appears to be as healthy as he has been all season, as evidenced by his two interceptions last week against the Colts, so I definitely think he will give Decker all he can handle. Keep an eye on these two going at it this Sunday, because it will be a dog-fight from start to finish.
Kyle Arrington/Logan Ryan vs. Wes Welker
This is the matchup that we all want to see. And not only that, but it might decide this football game. Kyle Arrington takes a lot of heat from Patriots fans, but when he moves to the slot, he is actually pretty good. But trying to contain Wes Welker is one of the toughest jobs there is in the NFL, making this one on one battle, a must watch. With that being said, I don’t think Bill Belichick will allow Welker to get one on one coverage all night long, as the last time these two teams played, New England played a lot of zone in the middle. Rookie Logan Ryan will also find himself matched up with number 83 from time to time, but I also expect him to be moved all over the field, including on the outside against the two taller wideouts. Ryan had a tremendous rookie season, leading the team in interceptions. Having quality depth at this position is one of the most important things to have at this time of the year, and in a year where depth has been an issue, New England finally has the right formula in the back end.
Julius Thomas vs. Jamie Collins
Thomas could end up being the biggest x-factor in the game on Sunday, not only because he is a great player, but because he didn’t play a few months ago in Foxboro. Thomas brings a Gronkowski-like presence to the Denver passing attack, in that he is a mismatch for just about everybody out there. He is too big for a safety, and most of the time, he is too fast for a linebacker. But the play of rookie Jamie Collins has given us some hope in the Pats being able to slow down Thomas. Collins is a freakishly athletic linebacker, as he displayed last week versus Indianapolis, and if he can guard Coby Fleener, I think he can give Thomas a run for his money. Thomas seems to be a security blanket for quarterback Peyton Manning, and if Collins is able to disrupt the timing between the two, Manning could have some real problems in the middle of the field.
Devin McCourty/Steve Gregory vs. Explosive Plays
The worst thing that came out of Saturday’s win over the Colts, was the bad safety play from McCourty, and Gregory. Both of these guys were great all year long, but they let a few big passes get behind them against Indy, something that can’t happen this weekend in Denver. McCourty is a Pro-Bowl caliber safety, so I expect him to play smart, and keep everything in front of him. The same goes for Gregory, although I don’t think he is quite as talented as McCourty. However he had a solid 2013 campaign, as many of his teammates called him, “the smartest player they know”.
If each of these Pats defenders plays hard, and to their full potential, I think they get the nod over the Denver receivers. Now with that being said, Peyton Manning, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, will be throwing them the ball, and if the New England front four can’t get pressure on Manning, it won’t matter how the Patriot DB’s play. Good quarterback play always trumps good coverage, so Rob Ninkovich, and Chandler Jones better get some pressure on Peyton, this weekend in Denver.