The New England Patriots face off against the Denver Broncos once again this weekend in the AFC Championship game Sunday afternoon in Denver. The Patriots–who lost the chance to have this game in Foxboro, MA by virtue of losing to the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins in their last two games of the season–travel on the road for the AFC Championship game rather than hosting it.
The Denver Broncos will be monitoring the shoulder injury of cornerback Chris Harris, Jr.–arguably the most complete cornerback in the NFL. After coming into the league as undrafted free agent he quickly established himself as a solid cornerback stepping in at the slot cornerback role. By 2012 he was established as a rising star and by 2013 his loss due to torn ACL played a key role in losing the Super Bowl.
Although Denver beat New England in the 2013 AFC Championship game without Harris, that team had a record-setting Peyton Manning at quarterback, not the inconsistent game-manager he was against Pittsburgh on Sunday. Denver had the advantage of defeating the Patriots in November, but that game was against a New England team at the tipping point with injuries.
The Patriots are still monitoring injuries this week with defensive end Chandler Jones with a non-contact knee injury sustained chasing Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith out of the pocket on Saturday. In addition, linebacker Jamie Collins left the game with was termed a back injury (but appears to be an oblique injury) followed by veteran Jerod Mayo with a shoulder injury (Mayo was put on injured reserve this week). Linebacker Dont’a Hightower appeared to re-aggravate his knee injury and was in and out of the game against Kansas City. The status of their top pass rusher and top duo of linebackers bears watching up to game time.
The Patriots offense is in better shape at this time with wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola healthy and able to play and tight end Rob Gronkowski (who was carted off the field with a knee injury) available to play. Remember, at the end of that first matchup in Denver the New England offense ended with Scott Chandler, Chris Harper, Keshawn Martin (in his first game back from injury and less than 100% healthy), and a not up-to-speed yet Brandon LaFell.
In the first matchup in Denver, the Patriots’ passing attack featured 22 targets directed to Chandler, LaFell, Harper and former tight end Asante Cleveland (all stats from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted). With Edelman, Amendola, Gronkowski and left tackle Sebastian Vollmer on the field, the offense should be back to full strength.
Since both teams are focusing on getting ready for their AFC Championship game showdown, let’s do the same and investigate both teams and what to watch for on Sunday and the game score prediction at the end of the analysis. Remember, you can follow my live tweets and in-game analysis during New England Patriots games at @halbent01 on Twitter.
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