AFC Championship Game Preview and Prediction

Posted: January 16, 2014 in Uncategorized

NFL: Denver Broncos at New England Patriots

 

Most of us suspected that it was coming. After 14 career meetings, including three in the playoffs, the AFC Championship will once again come down to Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Like Spider-Man vs. Venom, Superman vs. Lex Luthor, and Professor X vs. Magneto, this ancient rivalry is destined to be a battle for the ages.

When Denver has the ball…

The Broncos’ offense not only dominated the entire league in 2014; they also one upped Brady and Bill Belichick by dousing the 2007 Patriots’ record for points scored (589) with an astounding 606 this year. Manning, who also bested the record for touchdown passes previously owned by Brady, has a plethora of weapons to showcase, including former Brady target Wes Welker (73-778-10). The diminutive wideout has battled concussion issues this season. But, he’s 100% and ready to go against the team that he departed last offseason to venture to the Rocky Mountains. Demaryius Thomas (92-1430-14), Eric Decker (87-1288-11), and Julius Thomas (65-788-12) are the three other main contributors in Denver’s historic passing attack. This is where it gets tricky for New England, who doesn’t have the health or the depth in their secondary to match up with the Broncos’ offensive ability.

Watch out for Knowshon Moreno, as well. The veteran back, once considered a first round bust, has broken out in a big way with Manning under center. In 2013, the former Georgia Bulldog galloped for 1038 yards and 10 touchdowns while also contributing large numbers through the air (60-548-3). Denver relied heavily on the run during their week 12 overtime loss to New England. One should expect them to continue that trend, as they have rushed for over 100 yards in 7 of the past 8 weeks. Young RB Montee Ball will also see action. The former Wisconsin Badger rushed for 559 yards and 4 scores this season.

As for New England’s defense, it has been an impressive ride for the unit that ranked 10th in the league after allowing 338 points this season. Most impressive is probably their ability to withstand the dramatic array of injuries that have hampered the unit this season. Gone are stalwarts Tommy Kelly, Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo, and Vince Wilfork. Even Aqib Talid, the team’s best cornerback, has played through lower-body injuries all campaign long. Allowing the team to withstand these injuries is the emergence of young playmakers like Logan Ryan (team leading 5 interceptions), Alfonzo Dennard, Chris Jones, and Jamie Collins. The continued blossom of former 1st round pick Chandler Jones (11.5 sacks) was also critical. If the Patriots are to beat Manning, they’ll need Jones to lead a successful pass rush.

When New England has the ball…

For Tom Brady, this is just another day at the ballpark. The gunslinger is set to play in his 8th AFC Championship Game, the most in league history for a single quarterback. After winning his first three, Brady has dropped two of his last four (including one to Manning in 2006). The veteran is battling through illness and shoulder issues. But, Tom Terrific always seems to be fine come kickoff, and we expect nothing less this week against Denver.

New England’s offense, once predicated primarily on the pass, has seen a shift in paradigm of late. With a three headed monster of Steven Ridley (773 yards), LeGarrette Blount (772 yards), and Shane Vereen (47 receptions), the Patriots have recorded over 145 yards rushing in each of their last three games. It’s no surprise that New England won those three affairs by a combined score of 118-49. In their three games prior against such putrid foes as Houston, Cleveland, and Miami, the Patriots were held under 100 yards rushing. Subsequently, New England went 2-1 and were even in scoring with those opponents, 81-81. If New England plans of heading to northern New Jersey in two weeks, they’ll need to do it on the backs of their three “backs.”

That’s not to say that New Englands’ air attack is a liability. Granted, if a year ago, I told you that the 2013 Patriots’ offense would be without Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker all season and Rob Gronkowski for most of the year, you’d argue that they were at best eliminated in the Wild Card round. Well, the magic of Brady and Belichick has continued. Despite relying on an ineffective Danny Amendola and a banged up duo of rookie receivers in Aaron Dobson and Kembrell Thompkins, the Patriots’ passing attack has not sputtered too dramatically. Yes, since Gronkowski went down, New England hasn’t thrown for over 200 yards. But, much of that lack of statistical filler is due to their reliance on the ground attack, which has been fantastic. Julian Edelman, meanwhile, has emerged as the best of the entire group. A former college QB, the veteran was stuck behind the impressive array of playmakers that New England possessed prior to this year’s rash of injuries. His 105 catches for 1056 yards and 6 touchdowns all led the team in 2013.

For Denver to succeed in limiting New England under 30 points, they need to do exactly what they did in the first half of their week 12 matchup in Foxboro. That is, force turnovers and limit the ground game. Brady will get his big plays through the air. That’s just Brady being Brady. You’re also unlikely to force a turnover out of the future Hall-of-Famer. In order to succeed, Denver, who is missing pass rush specialist Von Miller and defensive back Chris Harris, is going to require a big day from their front-seven. If Blount and Ridley don’t turn the ball over, they will get going, forcing the secondary to pinch into the box; which will, of course, allow Brady passing lanes over the top.

Prediction

Brady leads the all-time series between he and Manning, 10-4. In their last playoff matchup, Brady saw a large half time lead slip away in a 38-34 Indianapolis victory in 2006. That was the only time that Manning would go on to win a Super Bowl during his illustrious career. Peyton knows that time is running out on a second chance. But, so does Brady, who turns 37 in August. The winner of this game could, conceivably, be playing for an exclamation point to his legacy in two weeks.

This game will come down to the two aspects of football that playoff games most often are determined by: turnovers and the running game. New England, during the middle-part of the season, was a turnover machine, thanks in large part to Ridley and Blount. Now, with both of those backs performing much better, the Patriots have turned the ball over just once in their last three games. Meanwhile, prior to turning it over twice against San Diego last week, Denver had just one turnover in the season’s final three regular season games.

In the end, the game is probably going to come down to one of these quarterbacks having his hands on the ball in the final two minutes. I like New England to cover the spread and win the game outright, thanks in large part to their running attack and ability to keep the ball out of Manning’s hands. Remember, San Diego was successful in beating Denver last month because they kept the Broncos’ offense off the field for much of the second and third quarters. Denver will get theirs early on. But, Brady and Belichick will once again reign supreme, as they advance to their sixth Super Bowl together since 2001. Patriots 27, Broncos 24

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