Sunday’s AFC Championship is being billed as Brady vs Manning. Why shouldn’t it be? The two greatest quarterbacks of their generation facing off for an unprecedented 17th time. By now everyone knows the stats Brady has won 11 to Manning’s five. Brady has four rings, Manning has one. Manning owns the regular season stats, but Brady owns the postseason stats. One is considered the epitome of clutch, the other chokes on the big stage.
Unlike basketball, we won’t see Brady and Manning on the field at the same time. Which is why the epic battle is more than just quarterback vs quarterback. Peyton Manning is a shell of his former self, anyone who has watched football knows this. Father time has caught up with the face of the NFL. Now it is up to coach Gary Kubiak to design a game plan that can beat the New England Patriots defense. It is up to Wade Phillips to mastermind a defense that can slow down Tom Brady, Julian Edelman and the best tight end in football Rob Gronkowski. It is up to Bill Belichick to direct his team into slowing down a great Denver defense. Josh McDaniels must find the correct balance to have his offense play 60 minutes of football and not squander a 14 point fourth quarter lead. Matt Patricia must not allow the Broncos zone running scheme to gash his team for 179 yards.
large1 How the Patriots offense can beat the Broncos
The Patriots are led by Brady and there is no quarterback in the NFL that is more capable of beating a great defense than number 12. Brady and company will be going up against the number one ranked defense in the regular season. In his previous three tries in the playoffs, the Pats signal caller is 3-0 when facing such a challenge. What should the game plan be? As much as I preach balance, most who have watched the Pats realize that when they throw they win.
The Patriots best chance to slow down DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller is to spread the Broncos out and pass all over them. In their November meeting Brady pass 42 times for 280 yards and three scores. This was without the services of Edelman and Danny Amendola. He also lost Gronk in the forth quarter. After Gronk’s injury Brady was able to will his team down the field to tie the score. Much more is needed and luckily for this game number 11 and 80 will be on the field. The quick passing game was abandoned without the two receivers as the Patriots tried to take advantage of the match ups against the Broncos linebackers. Who can forget Scott Chandler on what seemed like thirty seam routes up the sideline. This game is different. Edelman will be able to work his magic from his Z position. He will be in motion all over the field dictating the match up the Pats will face. The Broncos will most likely attempt to put former friend Aqib Talib on the shifty receiver. That match up is a win for the Patriots. Talib is a great corner, but if his time with the Patriots tells us anything he can struggle against shifty guys such as Edelman, think Steve Smith of Carolina.
With Edelman back in the fold the Patriots can then use Gronkowski in the out wide roll to take advantage on one on one linebacker coverage. Brandon LaFell will get the coverage of Chris Harris and his gimpy shoulder. Despite the injury, Harris will be able to hold LaFell at bay. The running back trio of Steven Jackson, Brandon Bolden and James White will be used to catch the ball out of the backfield and provide extra protection for Brady on longer developing routes. White should be used more out of the backfield in this game as a quick option receiver. If the Patriots get a lead it is imperative that McDaniels uses his brain and milks the clock with Jackson. In the last meeting with a seven and then a four point lead the Patriots ran the ball only once. The short passing game is great but the Patriots offensive line need to create holes for the back to close out games.
The Patriots offensive line played well against the Chiefs last week. This week they face the same great front seven. The key to this game will be protecting Brady up the middle. Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon can get Brady a couple of seconds to throw the ball, but if the interior line struggles against Derek Wolfe collapsing the pocket from the inside it could be a long game. In previous season ending playoff losses for the Patriots it has been the interior line that has let the team down. When Brady can step up in the pocket he can buy himself the extra time.
How the Patriots must stop the Broncos
Containing the Broncos running game is key number one for the Patriots. While the Broncos have great receivers in Thomas and Sanders, the Pats must contain the zone running scheme. Holding the Broncos to third and longs will be the key. The Pats struggled to get off the field last week, and they can not do that this week. The Patriots must be better on third down defense. The Broncos will try and establish the running game to win the time of possession battle.
The Patriots defensive line must stay disciplined in their lanes. The object of Kubiak’s zone running is to get the defense moving one way and then have the running back cut back. Malcom Brown could be a huge factor in this game. He and the other interior defensive lineman will be tasked with staying in their lanes and not allowing the cutback. The defensive line must play with their shoulders square to the ball.
The linebacking crew will have two key members back for this game that were missing in the last game. Jamie Collins was out last game with an illness and Donta Hightower was hurt early in the game with a knee injury. Collins is an athletic freak, but it is Hightower that sets the tone for the defense. Hightower’s ability to be a force in the run game is the key to this game. If he can get in to the gaps the zone running game creates it will be the difference between a two yard gain and a 10 yard scamper. Expect Collins and Hightower to play the majority of the game as the only two linebackers on the field.
The Patriots secondary will be tasked with shutting down Thomas and Sanders. Logan Ryan was awesome against Thomas in the first game allowing only one catch for 36 yards. Last week Ryan wasn’t as good as he’s been this year. While no one can expect the same type of game he had in November, he should be able to limit Thomas. Malcolm Butler on Sanders is going to be the heavy weight fight to watch. While Edleman is the reason the Patriots offense moves, Sanders is equally as important to the Broncos. Sanders had eight catches for 113 yards last game. Butler wasn’t horrible by any stretch of the imagination, as he made his fair share of plays, he will need to be at his utmost best in this game.
The Patriots will win this game 31-23. When reviewing who would win, this ultimately came down to one thing. What team is the better all around team. The Patriots offense is much better with a healthy Edelman, Amendola and Gronk. The Broncos defense is very good but the Patriots defense is only a notch below at most. The key as often overlooked is in the trenches and if the Patriots interior offensive and defensive lines can “do their jobs”, it will be onto Santa Clara.