The Playbook: Previewing Broncos-Patriots, Seahawks-49ers
No. 2 New England at No. 1 Denver — 3 p.m. ET (CBS): The edge in the Tom Brady-Peyton Manning rivalry lies firmly with the Patriots’ quarterback. He’s now 10-4, counting the postseason, against his fellow future Hall of Famer, with win No. 10 coming in dramatic fashion as the Patriots stormed back from a 24-0 deficit in Week 12 to upend the Broncos by seven.
If there is any carryover from the quarterbacks’ history against each other when Denver and New England meet in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game, it could come in the form of confidence gained by the Patriots in rallying for that regular-season win. Of course, Brady and company would prefer to avoid falling into a huge hole altogether, especially on the road. (Brady has yet to face a Manning-led Broncos team in Denver.)
To accomplish that goal New England may turn back to its suddenly vibrant run game, led by the unexpected reemergence of LeGarrette Blount. The ex-Buccaneer, acquired in a throwaway trade during last offseason (Blount for Jeff Demps and a seventh-rounder), scored four touchdowns on 166 yards rushing in the Patriots’ 43-22 divisional-round win over Indianapolis. Stevan Ridley also found the end zone twice for the Patriots, who needed just 198 yards passing from Brady to roll.
Brady may opt to take to the air more Sunday against a banged-up Broncos defense. The latest setback: Chris Harris’ ACL tear, suffered last week. Denver struggled badly with Harris out of the lineup, replacing him with Quentin Jammer, who was burned a couple of times as San Diego attempted a second-half comeback.
The Patriots remain Rob Gronkowski-less, but Brady still has the eternally underrated Julian Edelman at his disposal, along with Danny Amendola and Kenbrell Thompkins.
The names on Denver’s wide receiver depth chart are far more imposing: Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker. Add in emerging tight end Julius Thomas, and it’s not hard to see how Manning set NFL records for both passing yards and passing touchdowns this season.
The attention defenses must pay to all of those weapons also helps explain how Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball have found room to accelerate Denver’s rushing attack. Moreno topped the 1,000-yard mark this season, and Denver rushed for 133 yards in its win last weekend. That backfield tandem may not be the go-to option for a pass-heavy offense, but Moreno and Ball are capable of keeping the Patriots defense honest … or burning it if it’s not.
Will either team be able to pressure the other’s quarterback? The answer to that question may dictate how this one shakes out. The Patriots finished fifth in the league with 48 sacks; the Broncos tied for 13th at 41. In a game that figures to go down to the wire, one rush-induced turnover could change the tide. – Chris Burke
Chris Burke: Denver 34, New England 31
Doug Farrar: New England 27, Denver 23
• Matchup to Watch: Julian Edelman vs. Champ Bailey/Quentin Jammer.
Just as the Patriots do not employ Edelman strictly out of the slot (he spends about half his time there), the Broncos likely will not attack Brady’s top receiver with just one defender now that Harris is unavailable. Instead, count on Denver to mix and match its coverages — dropping Jammer into the slot, lining up Bailey versus Edelman and using Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie out wide.
New England will look to exploit the moments when Jammer and Bailey draw the Edelman assignment. And, true to Brady/Bill Belichick form, the passing attack could cycle through Edelman until the Broncos show they can prevent such an occurrence.
• Pressure’s on … : Terrance Knighton, DT, Denver.
The Broncos have not always held up well against the run this season. Knighton ensured they got the job done in the divisional round against San Diego’s attack (though an injury to Ryan Mathews helped). As mentioned above, the shifting face of the Patriots offense could mean a lot more run plays than the casual observer might expect. If it’s working for Blount and Ridley to pound Denver between the tackles, the Patriots will be able to control the clock, keep Manning on the sideline and open up space downfield for an occasional shot.
Should Knighton and Malik Jackson generate some push, on the other hand, the Patriots might be reduced to a one-dimensional attack. Given the lack of threats in New England’s passing game, that sort of variable would put a load of heat on Brady.
• This Week’s Sleeper: Shane Vereen, RB, Patriots.
With Blount taking on a starring role and Ridley churning out carries, Vereen has slid into the background of New England’s offense. That all could change Sunday if the Patriots decide to attack the Broncos through the air because it’s in the passing game that the versatile Vereen really shines. His ability to line up as a receiver outside helps his team offset its talent deficiency at wideout. Don’t be surprised if Vereen sees plenty of snaps — and quite a few targets from Brady — on Sunday.
• Rookie Spotlight: Montee Ball, RB, Broncos.
Moreno has reclaimed his spot as the No. 1 back in Denver, but there has been room for Ball nonetheless. Should the Broncos stake themselves to a second-half lead, they’ll do what they can to wear down the Patriots up front. Though Ball may not be front and center on that approach, he should see several key carries. – CB