Next Sunday, the Patriots will either make team history, or reveal that the decision to not play to win the Miami game was the biggest blunder since not handing off to Marshawn Lynch on second down.
Here we go again. Name your subtitles. Brady-Manning XVII. Football Hades, Colorado (thanks, Ron Borges). Thin air in 5,280-foot altitude. Tom Brady is 2-6 in Denver. Peyton Manning will get the same valedictory that his general manager got some 20 years ago, a titanic win over the bane of his career and a victory in the 50th Super Bowl before he is (presumably) borne off to pro football’s Valhalla. CBS is still partying over the matchup they dreamed of for next Sunday.
The Patriots are appearing in their fifth straight AFC Championship Game next Sunday, tying the 1973-77 Oakland Raiders for the most consecutive conference title game appearances. Standing in their way of a ninth Super Bowl appearance in franchise history (which would also be most in NFL history) is the Denver Broncos. The problem is that the game won’t be at the cozy confines of Gillette Stadium, but rather Invesco Field at Mile High. Flip the venues around and the Patriots win easy next weekend. But in Denver, as history tells us, the Patriots will be up against it.
You’ve heard this before, but experts once again predict that this is the game where the Patriots finally break through and win a playoff game in Denver. We heard the same thing three seasons ago, and to everyone’s amazement, the Broncos went to the Super Bowl (where they were crushed to death by Seattle). Nobody figured in 2005 that the Super Bowl three-peat (James Brown, then of Fox, called it the Boston Three Party) would get derailed in Denver. That mini-dynasty ended thanks to a critical Kevin Faulk fumble and a 100-yard interception return by Champ Bailey.
Counting a loss in 1986 the year following Super Bowl XX, which has no bearing on this weekend, the Patriots are 0-3 in the postseason in the city of Denver. Brady played in the latter two of those losses, the 2005 championship-ender and the debacle three years ago when former friend Wes Welker took out Aqib Talib on a cheap shot and pretty much ruined any chance to stop the Denver passing attack. Brady’s postseason success has never gone with him to Denver, at least not to this point.
In the Brady-Bill Belichick Era, the Patriots are 3-6 at Denver. Belichick had a 28-19 win at old Mile High Stadium in his first season, his first victory as Patriot head coach. Brady’s two wins were a chaotic 30-26 win on a Monday night in 2003 which was aided by an intentional safety and made possible by an electrifying touchdown pass to David Givens with 30 seconds left, and a 41-23 win in 2011 where the starting quarterback for Denver was Tim Tebow.
This is why the Patriots really needed to win the regular season finale against Miami. At home against Denver, the Patriots have won the last four meetings (regular season and postseason) and are 4-2 in the Brady-Belichick Era. The Patriots would be prohibitive favorites, the Broncos would be made to look like the Colts last year (as long as someone checks the air pressure of the footballs), and Patriot Nation could have Super Bowl visions a week early.
But the Patriots chose to take it easy in Miami, work the running game, avoid injury, and not matter who you play or where in the postseason. They have the worst possible venue in the NFL to make that theory come true.
On paper, the Patriots should have an easy time with Denver. Las Vegas has the Patriots a 3-point road favorite. After watching the Broncos struggle on Sunday with a decimated Pittsburgh Steelers team and eke out a 23-16 win, Belichick should be salivating. Manning is a shell of his former self. Ben Roethlisberger had little problem dissecting the Denver secondary. Head coach Gary Kubiak cannot insert Brock Osweiler at this point because of Manning’s iconic status. GM John Elway would never allow it. Osweiler was the winning quarterback when Denver won against the Patriots back in November, not Manning. But Manning has to start.
Given how well the Patriot offense clicked Saturday night against Kansas City, the Patriots should make even more hay next weekend. Neither Julian Edelman nor Danny Amendola played in that Sunday night overtime loss. Rob Gronkowski and Dont’a Hightower went down with in-game injuries, which allowed Denver to rally from down 21-3. With all the offensive cogs back in the lineup, with Sebastian Vollmer almost singlehandedly galvanizing the offensive line, the Patriots should light up the scoreboard. They did drop 40 on Denver in the Tebow game five years ago, so it’s not like Brady can’t put up points in that place.
Defensively, the Patriots will be more inclined to stop the run versus the pass. Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson, the latter of whom scored on that 48-yard run in overtime, are much more of a threat than Manning is. If Hightower can stay healthy, that right there will help. Jamie Collins also didn’t play in that earlier meeting this year, and if Jerod Mayo is not too banged up from the Chiefs’ game, that should solidify the run defense. What would also be nice is if the Patriots could bring up Patrick Chung to help in run stoppage if he isn’t needed in pass coverage.
If the front seven can also apply pressure to Manning, that will also help the pass defense and perhaps induce a pick or two from the playoff-challenged future Hall of Famer. Pittsburgh sacked Manning only once and did not intercept him at all. Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich will be keys here, to apply pressure on the edges against a substandard Denver offensive line. Over the years, the key to stopping Manning is to hit his receivers hard and focus on them and not Manning, but in this game there is no Marvin Harrison or Reggie Wayne or Dallas Clark.
But the game is still in Denver. What edge the Patriots have on paper won’t matter on the field. So, here are four keys to victory.
No mistakes. Chris Harper is long gone. His muffed punt literally was the beginning of the end of the undefeated season. He was released the next day, too late to save the game and the tiebreaker advantage Denver enjoys. Brady cannot make bad decisions and/or hurried throws. DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller need to be accounted for at all times.
Stay healthy. No big surprise here. Losing Gronkowski and Hightower in the game in November, along with all the scratches, did as much damage as Harper’s muffed punt did. You don’t get injured on purpose, of course, but this is a huge factor on Sunday for the Patriots.
Stop the run. See above. Hillman and Anderson are more dangerous than Manning.
Maintain intensity for sixty minutes. This is where the altitude always comes in. It is a problem, even if players and experts tell you otherwise. It takes a few days to acclimate to the thinner air. Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis have shown us over the years that Denver can be beaten at home in the playoffs. New England simply hasn’t shown that capability yet.
It used to be that the Patriots could never win at Miami. They went from 1966 to 1985 before finally winning a game there. The game that finally broke the jinx? The AFC Championship Game, which sent them to Super Bowl XX. So, here we are again, another AFC Championship Game at Denver. Is this Sunday finally the one which takes Denver off the list of “postseason venues to avoid at all costs”?
Meanwhile, all you’ll see and hear about on TV this week is Manning. Just pop in your DVDs/Blu-Rays of all those Super Bowls Brady won and Manning didn’t, and you’ll be just fine on Sunday.
Posted Under: Patriots Commentary