The New England Patriots will travel to face the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Jan. 24, in the AFC Championship Game.
After both teams took care of business in the Divisional Round, they now go head-to-head for the second time this season for the right to play in Super Bowl 50.
Here’s five opening thoughts on this week’s contest. —
Different Pats Team: The last time these two faced off, the Broncos defeated the Patriots 30-24 in overtime on Nov.29. New England was without Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Jamie Collins in that contest. Adding to that, Rob Gronkowski and Dont’a Hightower both left the game with injuries.
This time around, all of those players will be on the field and their impacts were clear in last week’s 27-20 win against the Kansas City Chiefs. Edelman’s impact will be huge, especially on third down, as the Pats struggled (2-of-13) versus a stout Broncos defense in the first showdown.
The Patriots offense was also in a period of transition, as they had lost Edelman and tailback Dion Lewis in back-to-back week’s leading up to that contest in Nov. Now that the team has adjusted, they’ll be better off for this game.
Brady vs Manning XVII: Some may think this narrative has gotten old, but the NFL and CBS are certainly thrilled with the Tom Brady and Peyton Manning storylines for this week.
But this could be the final time these two play each other in their Hall of Fame careers. This is the fourth time they have played against each other in the AFCCG, with Manning holding a 1-2 advantage and the home QB winning every time.
As a whole, Brady has a sizable edge head-to-head, winning 11-of-16 contests versus Manning over the years. For these two to compete with their seasons on the line and a Super Bowl birth at stake, it can’t get much better than this for NFL fans.
Run Defense in Focus: The running game must the top priority for New England’s defense. Denver had their way on the ground in the regular season game, rushing for 179 yards for three touchdowns on 32 carries. It starts up front with the Pats front seven and there’s a good chance the result will dictate who goes on to Santa Clara, CA.
Don’t Hightower and Jamie Collins will be the x-factors in this matchup. Collins was out the first time around, but Hightower was on the field for the first 15 Denver rushing attempts that yielded only 43 yards. When Hightower left the field with a knee injury, that he’s never fully recovered from, the Broncos ran wild for 136 yards and three touchdowns on 17 carries.
Bill Belichick’s defenses have always been linebacker oriented and these two are the nucleus of New England’s young defensive core. A lot of pressure for them to perform this week.
How the Patriots Win: The Patriots get off to an early lead, move the chains and put pressure on the Broncos to score. The defense stacks the box, makes the Denver offense one-dimensional and puts the ball in Manning’s hands. If New England can take away the middle of the field, it will be tough for Manning to push the ball outside the numbers or down the field.
With Brock Osweiler starting earlier in the year, he had more mobility and was better suited for Gary Kubiak’s offense. Manning will be sitting in the pocket and the Pats should be able to dial-up some pressure, forcing some early throws and get off the field.
How the Broncos Win: Denver’s able to control the line of scrimmage, generating chunk yardage on the ground. With New England’s defense off-balance, Manning is able to work play action to his receivers.
A key for the Broncos will be getting pressure on Brady with four players. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware take advantage of a hobbled Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon, pressuring Brady and keeping New England’s offense out of sync. The Patriots are unable to sustain drives and fight bad field position throughout the day.
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