It was the matchup that everyone thought would decide the AFC representative in the Super Bowl, and it is now official. The Patriots and Broncos will square off Sunday in Denver, with the winner advancing to play in Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium. This is the third time that Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are meeting to decide the AFC Championship, with each previous game’s winner going on the win the Super Bowl. Here are the key matchups to watch with a trip to the Big Game on the line. Next
Brady vs. Broncos pass defense
Despite throwing just 13 completions and no touchdowns, Tom Brady led a highly explosive Patriots offense in their divisional contest against Indianapolis. Brady attempted just 25 passes because he knew the ground game was working so well, opening up the play-action when he needed a big throw. He still completed nine passes to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, who combined for 161 yards, including one huge 53-yard pass to Amendola. On a third and 10 from the Colts’ 18-yard line, looking to put this one on ice, Brady delivered arguably his best pass of the game, a 15-yard laser into double coverage that landed in Austin Collie’s hands. That gave Stevan Ridley the chance to score his second touchdown of the game and all but end the contest. In the last Patriots-Broncos meeting, Brady threw for 344 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions in a 34-31 win.
Against a resurgent Phillip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers, the Broncos pass defense held its own until the fourth quarter, shutting out San Diego and driving Rivers to sideline fits. The defense faltered in the last 15 minutes, though, allowing the Chargers three deep drives and 17 points to cut the Denver lead to just 7 with more than five minutes to play. Rivers ended up throwing for 217 yards and two touchdowns with a 66.7 completion percentage. Denver also suffered a major blow in the secondary, as cornerback Chris Harris was forced to leave the game in the fourth quarter with a knee injury, and it was later confirmed that he had torn his ACL and is done for the season.
Manning vs. Patriots pass defense
Peyton Manning has now won as many playoff games with the Broncos as Tim Tebow did, but he is going to have to be more “Peyton Manning-like” this week if he wants to double that total and reach his third Super Bowl. Manning played well against the Chargers, but the Broncos offense came up with only 24 points, despite relatively balmy conditions for early January in Colorado. Manning threw for 230 yards and two touchdowns, but was also intercepted in the end zone. Manning is going to have to put up more production if the Denver defense is as weak as it was in the fourth quarter of the Chargers game, when it allowed Phillip Rivers to come back and almost steal a win.
Andrew Luck orchestrated one of the best playoff comebacks in NFL history against the Chiefs, but the Patriots defense made sure that was not going to happen again. The pass defense held Luck in check from the get-go, intercepting the second pass he threw and ending up with four picks on the day. Luck’s yardage total was still high — 331 — but timely interceptions and pressure made this game not as close as the third-quarter score indicated. In the Patriots-Broncos Week 12 game this season, the Patriots defense allowed Manning to throw for just 150 yards and had an interception in New England’s overtime win.
Patriots rushing attack vs. Broncos run defense
For perhaps the first time since Tom Brady took over the Patriots offense, the running game may be more feared by opponents than the passing game. LeGarrette Blount had undoubtedly the best game of his NFL career against the Colts, taking 24 carries for 166 yards and a team-record four touchdowns, including a 73-yard scoring run that sent a soaked Gillette Stadium crowd into pandemonium. Stevan Ridley was solid as well, running for 52 yards and two touchdowns. The six rushing touchdowns were also a team playoff record. In the Week 12 win, the Patriots ran for just 116 yards and one touchdown; look for that game plan to be completely different this time around.
The Broncos defense held the Chargers’ running game in check during their divisional game in Denver, as the trio of Danny Woodhead, Ryan Mathews, and Ronnie Brown was unable to get anything going on the ground. Down by 17 late in the game, the Chargers almost exclusively passed the ball, which resulted in the San Diego runners totaling a mere 65 total yards on 18 carries. The Patriots will almost certainly try to test the Denver run defense early on, so the Broncos will need to be on their game from the get go.
Broncos rushing attack vs. Patriots run defense
The running game for the Broncos took a back seat to Peyton Manning’s record-setting air attack, but Denver’s rushers were impressive themselves. Knowshon Moreno emerged as a quality back, and rookie Montee Ball provided depth on third downs. Moreno and Ball combined for 133 yards on 34 carries against the Chargers, mostly working at the end of the game when Denver was trying to run time off the clock.
The Colts did not challenge the Patriots very often with their ground attack, opting instead to have Andrew Luck sling the ball all over a wet and gusty Gillette Stadium. Donald Brown ran the ball 17 times for 63 yards, while early-season acquisition Trent Richardson was a ghost, totaling 1 yard on three carries. Rookie New England tackles Joe Vellano and Chris Jones will need to continue to step up on run defense. In Week 12, the Patriots allowed Moreno to run all over them, as he totaled 224 yards on 37 carries, while they also allowed 40 yards on seven carries by Ball.
Patriots O-line vs. Broncos D-line
The Patriots offensive line had been incredibly consistent through the season, with Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins leading the way. The line struggled, however, in the playoff game against the Colts, allowing pressure on Tom Brady, who was sacked twice. The line was better at helping the run, though, as the Patriots backs totaled 235 yards on 44 carries. In the Week 12 meeting, the Patriots O-line allowed three sacks by the Broncos, while helping the running game total 116 yards.
Denver’s defensive front seven suffered a massive blow in Week 16 when it was announced that linebacker Von Miller would miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL. Not having Miller as a threat to rush the passer puts more work on the backs of the D-line. The line played well against the Chargers Sunday, with Malik Jackson, Shaun Phillips, and Jeremy Mincey combining to sack Phillip Rivers four times.
Patriots D-line vs. Broncos O-line
Rookie tackles Joe Vellano and Chris Jones have filled in admirably for the Patriots since Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly were lost for the season. While there have been some struggles up the middle, the defensive ends have played very strongly, as Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones have been the most consistent players in the front seven, combining for 19.5 sacks. Vellano and Chris Jones each recorded a sack on Andrew Luck in the playoff win, and the constant pressure on the Colts’ offensive line allowed linebacker Jamie Collins to sack Luck a third time. In Week 12, the Patriots D-line combined for one sack and four hits on Peyton Manning.
Manning’s historic season would not have been possible without the play of his offensive line. Despite losing starting center, and former Patriot, Dan Koppen in training camp, the line allowed Manning to be sacked just 20 times on the season, fewest in the NFL. In their divisional matchup against the Chargers, the O-line was a major shield for Manning, allowing no sacks and only one hit on the four-time MVP. The Patriots are going to have to solve the Broncos’ stiff O-line and get some pressure on Manning if they want to disrupt the flow of one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history.
Patriots turnover rates vs. Broncos turnover rates
One constant with the Patriots over the past few seasons has been their ability to turn opponents’ mistakes into their own opportunities. The Patriots’ turnover differential this season was a plus-9, putting them third in the conference. Their 17 interceptions tied the Broncos for fifth in the conference, while their 12 fumble recoveries tied them for third. In the Patriots’ playoff game against the Colts, they were plus-4 in turnovers, with four interceptions of Andrew Luck and no giveaways of their own.
The Broncos finished the season with a turnover differential of zero. Peyton Manning’s 10 interceptions were more than offset by the defense’s 17 picks. Fumbles, however, were an issue, as the Broncos lost 16 while recovering just 9. Against San Diego, the Broncos were minus-1 on turnovers, as the defense recorded no takeaways and Manning threw one interception.
Patriots returning vs. Broncos returning
On top of totaling 189 yards on the ground in Week 17 against the Bills, LeGarrette Blount also added two monster kick returns: one for 83 yards and another for 62. Julian Edelman has also proven to be a great asset on punt returns, averaging 10.7 yards this season. In the playoff win against the Colts, Blount returned two kicks for 37 yards, while Edelman brought back five punts a total of 36 yards.
Thought of as one of the most explosive return men in the NFL, Denver’s Trindon Holliday hasn’t been as electric in the past month and has even lost punt-return duties to Wes Welker and Eric Decker. In one of the most memorable plays of the season, the Patriots were forced to punt in overtime against the Broncos in Week 12, and Welker had trouble calling for the ball. It bounced off teammate Tony Carter and was recovered by New England’s Nate Ebner deep in Denver territory, setting up Stephen Gostkowski for a chip-shot field goal to win the game. Holliday had three kick returns for 77 yards against the Chargers, but also had a touchdown return called back on a Denver penalty.
Patriots kicking vs. Broncos kicking
Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski was the leading scorer in the NFL this season, totaling 38 field goals with just three misses, while hitting all 44 of the extra points he attempted. Gostkowski has already become one of the best kickers in Patriots history, perhaps behind only Adam Vinatieri. The Patriots kicking team did take a blow last week against the Colts, however, when a bad snap by Danny Aiken forced punter Ryan Allen to rush back and get tackled trying to get the ball away from the end zone. That resulted in a shoulder injury that forced Gostkowski into punting duties for the rest of the game. Despite never punting before in a game, Gostkowski was very effective, hitting five punts for an average of 41.8 yards, landing two inside the 20-yard line.
Broncos kicker Matt Prater has been very good as well. He set an NFL record earlier this season with a 64-yard field goal, breaking the previous record of 63. Overall, he hit on 25 of the 26 field goals he attempted. Against the Chargers, Prater hit one of two field goal attempts and made all three extra points, while the Broncos did not have to punt the ball once.
Bill Belichick vs. John Fox
Bill Belichick has a record of 6-5 against the Broncos since he took over as head coach of the Patriots, but he has won the past four meetings, including all since John Fox took over as head coach. In 2005, the Patriots lost a divisional round playoff matchup to a Broncos team led by Jake Plummer, but they trounced Tim Tebow and the Broncos, 45-10, in Foxborough on their way to the Super Bowl two years ago. In the regular-season matchup in Week 5 of 2012, the Patriots won, 31-21, despite Peyton Manning throwing for more than 300 yards and three touchdowns. This year, the Patriots won, 34-31, in overtime in Week 12 after trailing, 24-0, at the half.
When the Patriots and Broncos last played, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio had taken over as interim head coach for the Broncos as Fox was recovering from a heart procedure. Since returning to the Denver sideline, Fox has gone 4-1, including their playoff win against the Chargers. In his career, Fox is 1-5 against the Patriots, including 0-2 in the playoffs.
Belichick and Fox’s teams faced off on the biggest stage back in February 2004, when the Patriots took on Fox’s Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII. The Patriots went on to win, 32-29, on an Adam Vinatieri field goal with four seconds to play.
Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning
This is the matchup that neither of them will mention, but it is the one that everyone knows is most important. In today’s NFL, the quarterback is far and away the most important player on a team, and it is impossible to win without a really good one.
In the 14 times Brady has faced a Manning-led team, he is 10-4, including wins on the way to the Super Bowl in 2003 and 2004. Manning won the last playoff tilt, though, bringing his Colts back from a 21-3 deficit to win the 2006 AFC Championship, and eventually going on to win the Super Bowl over the Bears.
This will be the second time in the four playoff matchups that Brady is on the visiting team; the last time was that 2006 AFC Championship in Indianapolis. With both quarterbacks on the high side of 35, a win in this game will do great things for one of their legacies, as would another Super Bowl ring that one of them will have a chance to win Feb. 2 in New Jersey.
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