The New England Patriots will play in their third AFC championship game in as many years tomorrow. The Patriots will be looking to get back to the Super Bowl for the second time in that span. It will be no easy task, however, as standing in their way are the Peyton Manning led Denver Broncos, a team that broke essentially every offensive record in 2013. There’s no more fitting way to determine who represents the AFC in the Super Bowl than a matchup pitting Tom Brady against Peyton Manning. Let’s take a look at some of the key questions that will determine the outcome of this year’s AFC championship game.
1. Can the Patriots rely on the passing game?
It seems crazy to be questioning whether a Tom Brady led offense can produce points by relying on the passing game, but that’s the dynamic that’s likely to emerge in this game. The Broncos first priority will not be to get to the quarterback, but to stop the Patriots running attack led by LeGarrette Blount. If Denver is successful at stopping the run, that will force Brady and the Patriots offense to move the ball consistently through the air. Obviously, Brady is capable of controlling the game with the passing attack, but it’s more a question of just how effective the Patriots can be with their slate of receivers. If the Broncos can stop the run, look for Brady to rely on outlet passes to Shane Vereen. If Vereen can get going early, it will be just the recipe the Patriots need to keep the Broncos off balance and control the clock.
2. Can the Patriots limit the Broncos in the red zone?
The Broncos will move the football effectively. They have too many weapons on offense not to have success against the Patriots defense. It’s not whether the Patriots can keep the Broncos out of the red zone – that’s just not likely – it’s whether they can limit their productivity in the red zone, as ESPN’s Mike Reiss points out. If the Patriots defense can keep the Broncos out of the end zone a few times and make them settle for field goals, the Patriots will be in a position to win the game.
3. Can the Patriots defense continue to make big plays?
Peyton Manning is one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the NFL. But there is no doubting the fact that, at times, Bill Belichick has been able to create schemes to confuse Manning into making mistakes. If Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia can disguise coverages and force Manning to make a few mistakes, it could be another upsetting matchup for the first ballot hall of famer. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Manning is capable of torching whatever defense he’s up against, so the Patriots, particularly the secondary, will have to play their best game of the season to win. The emergence of Jamie Collins in the divisional round was exactly what the Patriots needed. Collins and the defense will need to make a few big plays like they did against the Colts to win this one.
4. Which team can stop the run?
With two hall of fame quarterbacks going head-to-head, it’s easy to overlook the role the running games could play in this one. The likelihood is that whatever team can run the ball most effectively will probably be packing their bags for New York. The focus of the Broncos defense will be stopping LeGarrette Blount and getting the Patriots offense off the field. The Patriots defense was pitiful against the run when these two teams played last. If they can’t be more successful at limiting Knowshown Moreno in this one, they aren’t likely to be as lucky as last time. The team that runs the ball most effectively and controls the clock will be the one that keeps the other team’s hall of fame quarterback off the field. That’s likely the key for the Patriots if they want to return to the Super Bowl for the second time in three years.
5. Can Blount continue his magic?
LeGarrette Blount has emerged as one of the most explosive players in the playoffs. The Patriots haven’t had a back run this successfully in January since Tom Brady was feeding the ball to Corey Dillon. If Blount can continue to play with the same ferocity he has over the past few weeks, the Patriots will likely see their offense as productive as its been all year. If the Broncos can stop Blount and force Brady to beat them through the air, the task will be much harder for Josh McDaniels’ offense. Look for the Patriots to feed Blount the ball early and often in this one to put the Broncos front seven to the test immediately.
This game will come down to the wire. The Patriots will do a better job of controlling the clock with the running game, but the Broncos will be efficient with their opportunities. Expect a big game from former Patriot Wes Welker and fellow wide receiver Eric Decker as the Patriots will likely focus more on taking away wide receiver Demaryius and tight end Julius Thomas. The Patriots offense will take advantage of their renewed running game and a depleted Broncos secondary to move the ball effectively. Expect this one to come down to a late fourth quarter score.
Patriots 38 – Broncos 31