The hype and analysis is nearly over for this years’ AFC Championship, as in seven short hours, the New England Patriots, and Denver Broncos will take the field, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
There are many different factors that will decide the winner of today’s game, but here are three things that I believe will determine who advances to the Super Bowl.
1. Run Game
Look for both teams to run the ball early and often today, but for two different reasons. This is now a strength of the New England offense, so running the football usually results in productive drives for them. But at the same time, it opens up things in passing game, while also keeping quarterback Tom Brady upright. Perhaps the biggest benefit of running the ball, is it keeps Peyton Manning on the sidelines. I am confident that the Pats defense will be able to slow down Peyton, but the best defense you can play against number 18, is simply not allowing him to get on the field. For the Broncos, I think they will be forced to run the ball, because Bill Belichick and the talented New England secondary will not allow Denver to throw the football like they want to. This means that the Pats will have six guys in the box to stop the run, making it extremely important for guys like Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones, and Dont’a Hightower to have big days.
2. Pass Defense
The Broncos will definitely struggle in defending the New England passing attack, but the question is, how much? If they can keep Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola contained, their chances of winning skyrocket. But having no Chris Harris back there will really hurt them, and I think the Pats will have some success throwing the ball, especially if the running game gets going early. It also looks like the Pats will get Aaron Dobson, and Kenbrell Thompkins back today, as they both recover from lingering injuries. This gives the Pats two threats on the outside, and if they can capitalize on one on one coverage (which they will get all game long), it could be a huge day for Brady and company. On the other side, the Pats will probably dedicate both of their safeties deep, so Peyton can’t connect on any big passes. Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard will both have their hands full on the outside, but I think they will be able to hold their own. I am a little concerned about how Eric Decker’s height will give him an advantage over Dennard, but hopefully New England will be able to figure it out. The big issue on this side of the ball, is the middle of the field. Kyle Arrington against Wes Welker, and Jamie Collins against Julius Thomas. Based on what happened the last time these two teams met, Welker will see a mix of man coverage, and zone. Arrington has the ability to slow him down, although Welker is an elite player, and this is a game where he could rise to the occasion, and go off. Collins showed last week that he has the skill-set to hang with a Julius Thomas, as he was given the assignment of covering Coby Fleener against the Colts. Whoever wins that matchup may end up deciding who wins this game, as controlling the middle of the field is key for both sides. But the real key to slowing this offense, is getting pressure on Manning with a four man rush. That means Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones have to win their one on one matchups, to try and get Peyton out of his rhythm.
When the pressure is high, turnovers are something that always have a big impact on the game. I think New England has the edge here, as they finished 2013 ranked eighth in the league in turnover differential, while Denver checked in at 16th. You cannot afford to give extra possessions to Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, especially in a game like this. This also means that each defense has to try and come up with turnovers, because that is the easiest way to beat two of the greatest quarterbacks to ever live. The Patriots had 29 takeaways in the regular season, while Denver wasn’t too far behind, as they came up with 26.