Here are four Patriots vs. Broncos matchups to watch on Sunday:
1. Pats Front 7 vs. C.J. Anderson/Ronnie Hillman
In my opinion, stopping the run is the number one key for the Patriots on Sunday. In Denver’s 12 regular season wins this year, they averaged 123 rushing yards a game. In their 4 losses, they only averaged 60.5 yards on the ground. That zone rushing attack can be tricky, but the Pats have to fight off the Broncos’ cut blocks, stay disciplined to take away the cut-back, and the linebackers must read where the play is going, and go make the tackle. Huge game for Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins.
2. Sebastian Vollmer/Marcus Cannon vs. Von Miller/DeMarcus Ware
Tom Brady is going to have favorable matchups against this Denver secondary to attack. Whenever Rob Gronkowski is singled up against a linebacker or safety he will go there, and I just love Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola against Chris Harris and Bradley Roby (James White against the linebackers could also have a big game). But in order for Brady to go to those guys, he needs ample time in the pocket. Since Edelman can get open so quickly, he doesn’t need a ton of time, but Vollmer and Cannon absolutely cannot let Miller and Ware dominate the game on the edge. Just give Brady enough time to get the ball out to his play-makers, and the Patriots will be fine.
3. Malcolm Butler/Logan Ryan vs. Emmanuel Sanders/Demaryius Thomas
I anticipate the Pats will play a lot of man coverage in this game to force Peyton Manning to throw into tight windows. This Broncos offense doesn’t have many weapons to work with outside of Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas, so that is why Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan have to step up. Devin McCourty will always be over the top as a safety net, but if Butler and Ryan can win these 1-on-1 battles on the outside, Manning is really going to struggle.
4. Special Teams
If Chris Harper doesn’t muff that punt back in November, the Pats probably win that game and the AFC Championship would be in Foxboro instead of Denver. So special teams is going to play a huge role in this game, on a multitude of levels. First off, turnovers are huge, so each side has to make sure their respective punt and kick return units don’t turn the ball over, because one mistake could change the game. Secondly, field position is always key in a game like this, especially with the Broncos inept offense on one sideline. If the Patriots force Denver to drive down the length of the field all game long, chances are New England will advance to the Super Bowl. And lastly, if this game comes down to a clutch kick, you have to love your chances if you are the Pats. Stephen Gostkowski is the best kicker in the league and the altitude in Denver will give him even more distance (Brandon McManus is a good kicker as well).