The New England Patriots will travel to face the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Jan. 24, in the AFC Championship Game. Here’s some pregame thoughts, three keys to the game and a prediction for the upcoming contest. —
– The Patriots beat the Kansas City Chiefs 27-20 last week to advance. The return of many injured players was a breath of fresh air to the team and the New England fans.
– The Broncos also won by seven points, defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers 23-16 last Sunday. It was one of the Broncos 10 games this season decided by 7-points or less.
– It’s Tom Brady against Peyton Manning for the 17th time of their historic careers. These games always dominate national coverage and for good reason. Some complain the narrative is old, but not me. I’ll always appreciate watching two of the league’s best quarterbacks going head-to-head. This might be the last time these two meet and the winner earns a trip to the Super Bowl. Awesome.
– Manning has struggled this season. He’s struggled with his health, but also on the field. In fact, Brady has thrown more touchdowns (3) than Manning (1) in Denver this year. Manning threw the second-most interceptions in the league this season (17) and last Sunday’s contest was the first game all year he’s played when he hasn’t turned the ball over.
– Is 19 the magic number? According to WEEI’s Ryan Hannable, Manning is 3-12 when opponents score 19 plus points in playoffs, while Brady is 20-2 when scoring 19 or more.
– In their first meeting in week 12 this season, the Broncos defeated the Patriots 30-24 in overtime. Both team’s were missing players that will be available this week.
For Denver, they’ll have Sylvester Williams and TJ Ward back in the line up after both were carted off in that Nov. meeting. DeMarcus Ware will also play after missing that game with a back injury.
The Patriots were without Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Jamie Collins in the first matchup. All three will be active this week. Also, Dont’a Hightower and Rob Gronkowski, both hurt in the game, are available. A big boost for both teams.
Three Keys to Victory:
Fast Start: It’s always nice to grab an early lead versus any opponent, but it would be incredibly beneficial this week against Denver. The Broncos haven’t lit the world on fire offensively and New England found their groove with Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski back in the line up together last week.
If the Patriots are able to get up early, they’ll put the pressure on the Broncos to score and get away from their run-first approach. The Broncos want to run the ball, keep Brady sidelined and protect Peyton Manning from throwing the ball down the field.
By attaining an early lead, the Patriots will dictate the tempo of the game and make Denver’s offense more one-dimensional. The front seven can pin their ears backs and the secondary can try and make a play on Manning’s throws to the outside.
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 contest versus the Pats in Nov., 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.
Win on Third down: The last time these two played, the Patriots were just 2-of-13 on third down on offense. If that’s the case this week, hard to imagine they leave with a victory.
Edelman’s return to the field last week gave the unit a boost, which certainly will be needed this week. Add to the fact Amendola will be on the field for this rematch and it should help New England move the chains.
On the defensive side it’s important the Pats can get off the field. The defense has been better than expected this season, but last week was a rather pedestrian performance against a mediocre Kansas City Chiefs offense. Let’s hope the defense can learn from their mistakes last week, tighten up, and give Brady good field position.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Broncos 17
This is going to be a dogfight. If this game was in New England, I believe it would be a comfortable win for the Patriots. But it’s hard to ignore the team’s history in Denver. After all, Brady is 2-6 throughout his career in Mile High. And the Broncos deserve credit, they’ve had a good season.
One thing Belichick has always done well is take away an opponent’s strength. This week, it’s the run game. Assuming the Patriots are able to limit the Broncos’ rushing attack, it will come down to how well Manning can throw the ball. I’m not sure he’s able to make the necessary throws down the field in order to win the game. If he is, the Pats will be in trouble.
It’s no secret the home team is usually favored by the officials, but one area that worries me is a huge call against New England that could decide the outcome of the contest. Make no mistake, there’s a good chance a pro-Denver penalty will happen at least once, the Patriots cannot put themselves in a position that the game is decided by the officials.
One more win for the Patriots and they’re back in the Super Bowl. We’ll see if they are able to get the job done this week.
Posted Under: Patriots Commentary