By: Bob George
DENVER – The pro football world looks at Brady versus Manning as a metaphorical aphrodisiac.
For the Patriots, there is only one thing. Something that involves the word Super.
Fourteen times the future Canton, Ohio residents have met, and ten times Tom Brady has won. This will be the third time that he and Peyton Manning will meet to decide the AFC Championship, and each man has won once. Brady will try and win his fourth Super Bowl and his third Super Bowl MVP. Manning will try and win his second of each.
Predictably, the national media has delighted in primping up this 15th rendition of the NFL’s Larry versus Magic. The other game, Seattle versus San Francisco, is perhaps a better matchup on paper. But Brady versus Manning is as sexy as it gets. One would hope that the average football fan would still prefer the object of their desires over this game, but given all the parameters, let’s hope that both partners are avid football fans for at least just this one weekend.
There. Enough space wasted on this rivalry. Now, let’s get down to business. Like, how the Patriots plan to go into a venue they usually do lousy in and try to win still another conference championship.
Since Bill Belichick took over as Patriot head coach in 2000, the Patriots have played in this game eight times counting this weekend. You can hem and haw over the fact that the Patriots have gone longer than the other three major pro teams in the area since their last championship, but at some point you have to stand up and cheer for at least this supreme accomplishment, if you haven’t already. Marv Levy is hallowed for getting the Buffalo Bills to four straight Super Bowls, albeit losing them all. This is better, much better, and even if Belichick never gets that elusive fourth Super Bowl win, a case can be made that, other than Vince Lombardi’s five NFL championships in the 1960s, this is the most remarkable run by a head coach in league history.
But the sobering fact is that the Patriots are faced with a daunting task on Sunday at Sports Authority Field. This is a city where the Patriots usually play very poorly. The Patriots have never won a postseason game in this city, and the last time they played here, in 2011, they beat Denver 41-23 largely because the other team’s quarterback was named Tim Tebow. It’s not an invincible Denver team like when John Elway (who never lost to the Patriots in his career) still played, but it is still a very good team. They are beatable in Foxborough, but in Denver, it makes it tough on the Patriots.
That said, if the Patriots are to break through and upset the Broncos on Sunday, here is how they will have to do it.
San Diego tried it, but the Patriots can do it better
It was sickening for three quarters. Watching the Chargers try and gash the Bronco defense with Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown was a study in futility. The Chargers didn’t score until Philip Rivers put the ball in the air in the fourth quarter.
How will that affect the Patriots and their new emphasis on the run game?
Dante Scarnecchia’s offensive line will be key to a Patriot win on Sunday.
(USA TODAY Images)
The Patriots have better blockers, for starters, and the best line coach in the game in Dante Scarnecchia. The road graders have to pretend that they’re going to build a new freeway from Denver to Steamboat Springs. Gash the Bronco front seven like San Diego was unable to. Give Stevan Ridley extra practice in not putting the pig on the ground so that LeGarrette Blount doesn’t drop dead from exhaustion.
And run the ball to set up the pass. Make the defenders load up to stop the run and open up passing lanes for Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. If Denver tries to blitz, drop a few screens to Shane Vereen. Use Michael Hoomanawanui as a blocker and not as a receiver.
Stop the receivers, not Manning
This is how the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVI. And this strategy has worked against Manning before.
Let’s pause once again to listen to the words of Ty Law on the victory stand in New Orleans in the aforementioned Super Bowl: “They say they have the greatest show on turf, but I ain’t never seen no receiver catch a ball with someone standing right in front of them!” After praising his teammates, he punctuated his euphoric declaration with this wonderful morsel of reality: “We put it on ‘em!”
Basically, the Patriots need to do the same. Aqib Talib gets Demaryius Thomas. Alfonzo Dennard gets Eric Decker. Kyle Arrington gets Wes Welker. Jamie Collins gets Julius Thomas. Get in their face and hit them hard. Disrupt them, beat them up, get into their heads, intimidate them. Just like what Law, Otis Smith, Lawyer Milloy and Tebucky Jones did to the Rams’ receivers in Super Bowl XXXVI.
If this game were in Foxborough, the Patriots could perhaps zone cover a little bit. Cover two won’t do it in Denver. Jam the receivers. Don’t blitz Manning. Take away his targets and let the pass rush drive Manning into mistakes.
Treat the football like your baby and take care of it
Brady first came to Denver in 2001. He threw four picks and looked like a deer in the headlights. Over the years, the Patriots have cut some real stinkers in Denver.
If the Patriots want to win this game, they cannot, repeat, cannot turn the ball over. Ridley becomes a focal point here, though he has not fumbled since Von Miller returned his last fumble in the Week 12 regular season meeting. Brady is also a focal point not only because of his history of picks in Denver, but his recent history of picks in postseason games.
Brady has to maintain his discipline all game long, and not try and win games on his own. Again, if the team can get a good rushing attack, Brady will be much more comfortable. But Brady cannot force the ball when he feels pressed into making a play to avoid a sack.
Belichick doesn’t play the game
It’s a given that Belichick will outcoach John Fox and his assistants. But the players still have to go out and play. If you see a bunch of Patriot players on the sidelines with oxygen masks, that’s a bad sign.
The Patriots came to Denver on Friday to acclimate themselves to the time zone, which is two hours behind Boston. But the altitude is a factor. Many players downplay the altitude, and on a recent Boston radio show, former Patriot tight end Jermaine Wiggins stated that the team needs to worry more about hydration in Denver versus worrying about gasping for air. But the altitude is a factor for all visiting teams.
The Patriots have 48 hours to get used to Denver. Hopefully they didn’t need longer. If they indeed get used to the environment, then the players need to go out there, and as their head coach would say, do their jobs. Execute the game plan. Shut up and get on to the next play. Be physically and mentally tough.
The Patriots haven’t played a road playoff game since losing here 27-13 in the 2005 Divisional Round, ending their run as two-time Super Bowl champs. All signs point to a Bronco win.
But they still have to play the game. And the Patriots can win. And Manning can lose.
So sit back and enjoy the game. Let the rest of the nation be aroused with the matchup. You the Patriot fan just worry about winning the game and no matter how.