AFC Championship Game: Broncos or Patriots, who you got?
All these teams have gone through injuries, good and bad phases, blowout wins, unexpected losses, a fortunate bounce of the ball but most importantly, they have all persevered. Football is a game of inches and it was apparent in the playoffs. Even though, final scores were relatively lopsided, all 4 teams that lost were in the game well into the third quarter. However teams that were able to ground and pound the rock and manage the clock, went home with the win. These 4 teams are the most deserving to be in this spot and we might have two of the best games on championship weekend in recent history. I am going to go into details for each of these two matchups and make my predictions. I have not been that good this season so I am not going to encourage anyone to look at the final scores and bet anything. Here are my thoughts on the AFC matchup.
PATRIOTS AT BRONCOS:
This is the 15th time that Peyton Manning and Brady will square off. It could have been at least 17 or more, if Brady were able to play in the 2008 season and Manning didn’t sit out the entire 2011 season. This game has an added dimension of legacies attached to it. Both Manning and Brady are coming towards the end of their career and both want to go down in the history as the best quarterback in the history of this sport, not just one of the best. Rings and Championships have become the criteria to judge this and Brady definitely has the edge because he won three rings in a span of four years. However since that final ring in 2004, here are the stats: (First Brady and then Manning)
PLAYOFF RECORD: 8-7 6-6
ONE AND DONE: 2 5
SUPER BOWL APPEARANCES: 2 2
SUPER BOWL CHAMPIONSHIPS: 0 1
The only thing that stands out is the whopping 5 times, Manning was unable to advance beyond the first appearance in the playoffs. Other than that, Manning has the edge. If the criticism on Manning is justified, then people ought to look at the number of times, Brady has come up short on multiple occasions. Both Superbowl losses are attributed to the clutch plays from Manning but Brady was not able to put up points to take them out of the game. In the game in 2010 against the Jets, just weeks after dismantling them by 40+ points on the same field, Brady was harassed all day and lost a clunker. So objectively, both players have played equally well and equally worse since 2005. However the rings do hover on Manning’s mind and he really needs to win this year to edge Brady out. If Manning is unable to win this year, the conversation would stop and Brady will be declared better than Manning. Would he be them consider the best, that is another story for another day.
Coming back to the game, the forecast is for a mild winter day with no wind at all in Denver. This is great for Manning who at his age would prefer not to play in the cold. Brady on the other hand thrives in cold conditions. However this game is at home for the Broncos and on the road for the Patriots. So the pressure would be on the home team to deliver and Brady can play loose. He has played timidly in the last two AFC Championship games and both times at home, the Ravens D was able to confuse and harass him on the line of scrimmage. Patriots did not have a running game and they had to rely on Brady to carry them throughout the game. The Patriots not have a great running game and that might be the deciding factor in this game. I am going to analyze each team as they are on the field to get an idea of what I think would unfold in this game.
Patriots on Offense / Broncos on Defense: As mentioned earlier, Patriots now have not one, not two, but three power runners in the backfield. In the Divisional game against the Colts, Patriots scored 43 points and Brady has no touchdowns. Blount was able to pound the ball on the ground and exploit the holes in the sieve which was the Colts defense. Belichick and Brady had a plan and they followed it to the T. They know that the Super Bowl this year might be in the snow and they wanted to beef up their running game before the playoffs. The tight ends and the full back have really helped in the running game as well. If anyone watched the game last Saturday, Michael Ho’omaananuwi was a beast in the run blocking game. He played one of his best games as a blocker in the NFL. Patriots would need more of that in this game. In the passing game Patriots have a team of unknowns but they have delivered week after week. Julian Edelman has been a revelation with over 1000 yards receiving and 6 TDs. The Patriots would try to control the time of possession and run the ball as much as they would throw. They want to keep Manning off the field as much as possible and for that to happen they would rely on the short yardage game. Brady is not going to take chances with big plays unless they have to do that. They will keep the game close because that is what the Broncos and Manning don’t like. They like to blow teams early and then let the crowd unsettle the opposing team.
No unit on Denver’s team has taken more hits than its defense. It is a mere reflection of what it could be if it were playing at full strength. The team has suffered season ending injuries to Von Miller, Derick Wolfe and Chris Harris. These are three key players on defense that are a big part of their success. Champ Bailey has been injured most of the season and now he has to be the starting corner in one of the most important games of the season. DRC is the only good DB that Denver has at the moment and to hi credit he has played really well. The only issue is that his over aggressiveness at times have cost the team yardage and points. Even though the New England offense ran the ball 46 times last week, I will look to see Belichick going into this with an open mind. They are going to test the run and the pass equally in the first quarter and see what will succeed. They are going to keep the drives going if they want to be in this game. So I would look for NE to pass more in the slot and run up the middle. Brady will take his chances if he can see separation but these throws will be made when he is beyond the 50. I think Brady, unlike previous seasons, did not play well in the beginning and his game improved when he got his weapons back. The loss of Gronkowski is huge and that really hurts the team in the Red Zone. So I think Bill will run more in the red zone and try to score each time. NE’s offense will take advantage of this depleted Denver defense and I see a lot of yards for NE. The key will be to see if they can score when they get in the Red Zone. Against Peyton on a nice day, you can’t settle for 3. NE has to score 7 on each red zone possession.
Denver Offense v/s NE defense: If Denver has lost some key players on defense, Patriots probably lost more. They are without 4 key starters in Wilfork, Mayo, Spikes and Kelley. These are the cornerstone of all they do on defense. Despite these losses, NE was able to win the division at 12-4, get a bye and then blow out the Colts. It was their defense which forced Luck into 4 turnovers and score on 3 of them. Luck was impatient with his throws and NE was able to confuse him enough to force these bad throws. When he had time, Luck ripped apart the secondary. Even though NE has a pro bowl corner in Aqib Talib, they are still one of the most vulnerable teams in the league against the pass. Luck threw bombs to Hilton and Brazille last week and got chuck yardage. Colts were not able to run the ball effectively against NE and that was surprising considering that they did not have the run stuffer Wilfork. Jamie Collins, the rookie LB, was able to make many plays both in the passing and the running game to hold fort in the middle. At best NE’s defense is average and Bill Belichick knows it. However, what he does best than any other coach in the league is to maximize his players’ potential on the field and put them in good positions. In the first matchup at NE, what Bill did was to rush Manning as many times as possible to hurry him up. He knows that Manning just like Brady is a rhythm quarterback and the best way to elicit mistakes out of Manning is to force him to throw early in his progression. San Diego Last week was unable to sack him even once and he ripped them apart. However when ever he was pressured he did make some errant throws which the Chargers were not able to capitalize on.
Denver has one of the best, if not the best offense in the league. They have two very good running backs, 4 very good receivers, two very good tight ends and a magician at quarterback. Peyton Manning has been able to elevate the games of average receivers like Dekker and Andre Caldwell. Welker has been used very effectively especially in the red zone. As I mentioned earlier, that in order for Denver to win, they need to outscore the Patriots early. They did that last time and put on 24 before NE was even able to put anything on the board. What they were unable to do then was to sustain drives on a very cold night. They also managed to get good field position on some bad plays from Manning. He is not going to make the same mistake in this game. He is going to try to score on each drive but he knows that he was lucky last week. He made some bad throws that SD was not able to cash on. Patriots back end might be average but they are very opportunistic bunch. They look to take the ball away and they would do that if you throw to them. Denver will use no huddle often early and try to tire the NE defense. They would rely on short yardage passes and runs up the middle much like New England. The difference is that Denver has better cast around Manning and they can exploit a weak NE defense. There will be a lot of yards in this game and Manning will put up big numbers.
OUTCOME: This game might come down to poise. Both QBs have been in this situation before but there is more pressure on Manning this time, especially after the ouster in the first round last year. He was a little rattled last week in the closing minutes but composed himself and ran a text book 4 minute offense to run out the clock against San Diego. Brady is a cool cat and playing at home might have been a detriment in the last two years. He will play much better away from home this time and the weather will be more to his liking as well. Look for a lot of points in this game but I like Denver in this game because they are at home and I think Manning is a man on a mission. People think that it will be close and I am not sure. I think it will be a 10 or 14 point game at the end and Manning will prevail in this one and take a shot at Lombardi trophy in his brother’s place much like Manning did in 2011 in Indy.
BRONCOS 35 – PATRIOTS 24