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Who Are the Players to Watch, Patriots Broncos AFC Championship

Steve Balestrieri
5 years ago at 10:48 am ET
Posted Under: Patriots Commentary

Who Are the Players to Watch, Patriots Broncos AFC ChampionshipJim O'Connor - USA TODAY Sports

The Patriots need just one more win to book a trip to Santa Clara for Super Bowl L and a chance to win back-to-back championships. That is something that the mainstream media has been remiss in reporting all week. Considering it hasn’t been done since the 2003-04 Patriots with Tom Brady at the helm, it deserves mention. And not just a little.

The Pats took care of business against the Chiefs and looked much more like the team that throttled the opposition early in the season than the team that limped into the postseason losing four of six. Tom Brady was especially sharp hitting 28-42 passes for 302 yards and two touchdowns, despite his team having a case of the drops.

The Broncos had an impressive 23-16 comeback win against the Steelers. Down 13-12 midway thru the 4th quarter, Peyton Manning with a strong running game, led them to the eventual game winning touchdown and then added a field goal to put this one away. The defense held the potent Pittsburgh offense to just 16 points.

We already broke down this game with our Key matchups breaking down the offensive, defensive and special team’s units for this week.

Now it is time for our players to watch for this week. We’ve selected three players from each team that will be key to each team’s success.

Julian Edelman: The Patriots sparkplug wide receiver returned after missing two months and it seemed that he never left. Edelman caught 10 passes for 100 yards. He set the tone right away as he caught a key third down pass from Brady to move the chains on the Patriots opening drive.

Edelman’s presence ignites the short passing game that the Patriots lean on in lieu of the running game and no one does it better than Edelman. Prior to his injury the Patriots offense on third down was humming along at 50 percent (54 of 107). After his foot injury the team’s third down conversion percentage plummeted to 31 percent (34-108). During the first game in Denver without Edelman and Danny Amendola the Patriots were a woeful 2 of 13 on third down. Last week against the Chiefs, the Pats were 6 of 12 to get back to that 50 percent mark.

Edelman and Rob Gronkowski are Brady’s favorite and most trusted targets in the Patriots passing game, how well they produce will go a long way in determining the outcome of this one.

Key stat: With Edelman back in the lineup, his presence along with his ability to get open quickly gave Tom Brady the capability of getting the ball out of his hands incredibly fast. This helped the Patriots offensive line which has had issues with protection. On Brady’s 10 completions to Edelman he got the ball out of his hands in 1.57 seconds from snap to throw. On Gronkowski’s six receptions while lined up outside the numbers, Brady’s snap to throw times were an even faster 1.48 seconds.

Chris Harris: The Broncos most athletic cornerback will be the player tasked with stopping Edelman on Sunday. He has the quickness and physicality needed to matchup with #11 and try to take away that underneath quick pass that the Patriots offense thrives on.

Harris has been dealing with a shoulder injury which was characterized as a deep bone bruise. He played only on third downs against the Steelers, but was reportedly much better this week, with HC Gary Kubiak characterizing him as “ready for a full load” on Sunday.

Harris himself said he felt “light years better” and was listed as probably for the AFCCG on the Broncos injury report Friday. His matchups with Edelman will be the story inside the story of the passing game of NE against the Broncos defense. Especially when Edelman slides inside into the slot.

Key Stat: When moving inside in the slot, Harris held opposing QBs to a passer rating of just 44.6 in the 2015 regular season. Something will have to give here. This should be a good matchup between the two players.

Rob Gronkowski: Gronkowski definitely benefitted from having Edelman back in the lineup along with Amendola. No longer could teams dedicate a fleet of players assigned to Gronkowski, he now had much more room to operate in and he made the most of his opportunities.

On the Patriots opening drive, facing a 3rd and 13 from the KC 43-yard line, Gronkowski attacked the middle of the field and hauled in a 33-yard pass from Brady which set up the opening touchdown, also a pass to Gronkowski.

Whenever the Patriots spread the Chiefs out with a four or five-man wide formation, Brady would look to Gronkowski if he were singled up in man-coverage and the results were plain to see. Six of Gronkowski’s seven receptions were outside the numbers and they resulted in two touchdowns. Brady targeted Gronk eight times against KC, completing seven for 83 yards and the pair of scores.

Key Stat: In the first meeting in Denver, prior to being injured in the 4th quarter, Gronkowski had six catches for 88 yards and a touchdown. And that was without Edelman and Amendola in the lineup. In Brady’s last 23 games with both Gronkowski and Edelman available the Patriots are 22-1. And in those games Brady has completed 67.3 percent of his passes for 7322 yards with 64 TDs, 13 INTs for a passer rating of 107. That is how effective this trio is when they all are together.

Peyton Manning: The Denver signal caller is entering the twilight phase of his career. He’s no longer the focal point of the offense but rather a game manager who has to rely on his running game to get the job done as injuries and age have taken their toll.

The throws down the middle of the field aren’t as easy anymore as he now longer has the arm strength to test those passes which used to come so easily for him.

But he still has his brain and that with his experience can still be a dangerous combination if the game is close at crunch time. He was patient against Pittsburgh as he didn’t try to do too much and would only take what the defense was giving him. But Denver’s defense kept the game a one-point affair late into the fourth quarter. How Manning and the offense respond if they fall down by more than that will bear watching on Sunday.

Key Stat: Manning had his worst statistical year of his career in 2015 throwing just nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions.

Dont’a Hightower: The Patriots linebacker is questionable for this game and his status as well as his production will be a huge key for the Patriots defense on Sunday. Hightower is the Patriots key player on their defense, he is a big run stuffer that explodes in the gaps and blows up plays at the line of scrimmage or in the backfield.

He is also an underrated player in space that is very good at covering backs and tight ends close to the line of scrimmage. In the Pats front seven, Hightower is the anchor and Jamie Collins is the playmaker. The two give New England a very talented pair that work seamlessly with one another.

One other aspect for Hightower’s game is his ability to blitz up the A-gap. Both he and Collins have been quite adept at that and with an immobile Manning in the pocket, that could be something to watch for a couple of times on Sunday.

Key Stat: In the first meeting between the two teams in Denver, the Broncos rushed 15 times for 43 yards (2.9 yard avg), when Hightower was on the field. After he left with an injury, Denver ran 15 times for 133 yards (8.8 yard avg), and three touchdowns.

Derek Wolfe: The Broncos interior defensive lineman played a big role in the earlier meeting back in November and may once again be one of the key players to watch in this conference championship. With Brady attempting to the get the ball off quickly, it negates much of the rush that the Broncos can bring from the edge.

But Wolfe can bring the pressure from the inside and not allow Brady to step up in the pocket. He and Malik Jackson in the interior may play a bigger role in this game than their more well-known teammates in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware in disrupting the Patriots passing game.

Wolfe had a big year in 2015 with 6.5 sacks, all in the last eight games after missing the first four games of the season, serving a suspension for violating the league rules on PEDs. He just signed a four-year contract extension worth $36 million with 17.5 of it in guarantees.

Key Stat: In the first meeting Brady had Gronkowski in single coverage with Miller, a huge mismatch, and as Gronk was breaking free with plenty of room to run after a catch, Wolfe burst thru a double team and was able to get the sack. It was one of those plays that turned field position as the Patriots instead of being near midfield, were forced back around the 10-yard line.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.


Posted Under: Patriots Commentary
Tags: 2015 NFL Post season 2015 NFL Season 2015 Patriots 2015 Patriots Season AFC Championship Game Bill Belichick Brandon LaFell Chris Harris Danny Amendola DeMarcus Ware Denver Broncos Derek Wolfe Gary Kubiak Jabaal Sheard James White Julian Edelman Malcolm Butler New England Patriots NFL Patriots Patriots edge rushers Peyton Manning Rob Gronkowski Tom Brady Von Miller

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