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What to Watch For: Patriots at Broncos - AFC Championship

Friday, January 17, 2014

 

It's been difficult to enjoy this ride, because it's been a bumpy road along the way.

With eight players - all starters at one point - placed on the season-ending injured reserve list, the 2013 regular season for the New England Patriots could be classified as one of Bill Belichick's best coaching jobs.  But with the always-high expectations placed on a team and an organization every year, it gets tougher and tougher to appreciate the little things.

Except that...this is no little thing.  This "next man up" ideology is working, and it has the Patriots' players actually believing in themselves.  Enough to the point they're one game away from the franchise's sixth Super Bowl in the Belichickian era.

Sure, it's possible that one reason the Patriots are in this position Sunday afternoon in Denver against the Broncos is because everyone else left standing is also dinged, banged up, injured and/or limping into the next game.  All true.  Denver has also lost five players to the IR list this season, two of them just this past week with DE Derek Wolfe and CB Chris Harris, Jr. headed to the sidelines.  So the NFL Playoffs - and the AFC championship game in particular - come down to a war of attrition.

Who will be left standing at the end?

The Broncos still have enough offensive firepower for QB Peyton Manning to move the ball and get his team into the end zone.  They also add TE Julius Thomas to the mix, who was injured and not on the field in the November 24th regular season OT game in Foxboro (won by NE 34-31).  And speaking of that game, the Broncos' offense ran around, over and through the Patriots defense for 280 yards, 224 of which came from RB Knowshon Moreno.  Three early Patriot turnovers helped set Denver's game plan in that one, perhaps, but until the NE defense can show it can stop the Broncos on the ground...Denver's offense appears to have few weaknesses for a wounded-but-slowly-improving Patriot defense.

On the other side, New England had TE Rob Gronkowski for the November game, and don't this time around.  But what they do have is a ground game that might be unparalleled right now - certainly among the remaining four teams in the playoffs.  LeGarrette Blount has been a one-man wrecking crew, with 531 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in his last three games, a stretch that has evoked memories of Corey Dillon and even Antowain Smith from Super Bowl teams of the recent past.  Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen give the offense big-time versatility in the backfield, which means the Broncos have to take NE's ability to run the ball seriously.

Which could make things interesting for Tom Brady and his receivers.  Both teams will decide how best to "pick their poison" this week when it comes to stopping the other guys.

The chase, the chess match, the in-game adjustments both teams will make add to the anticipation of what could be a great game for one team...and a great finish for the other.  Injuries and expectation have both played a part with where they are.  Which is - still standing.  No matter who you root for, it's a shame if you can't enjoy the moment.

Dance with who brung you

Tough to change much at this late stage of the season, and both teams are what they are.  They're both capable on offense, suspect on defense...with perhaps a slight edge to Denver in stopping the run.  However, the Patriots could rate a slight edge in slowing down the passing game...especially with the Broncos losing Chris Harris last week.  While the Patriots get huge props for changing who they were during the season, they shouldn't try to do that now...let Blount and Company run, and with any success, let play-action passing run its' course.  For Denver...even though they ran at will in November...attack, attack, attack with Manning and the receivers.  Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard will be busy.

Find your hero

The Broncos have TE Julius Thomas in the mix, and not having had his presence in the regular-season game with New England gives Denver one more option, and the Patriots one more headache.  A healthy, capable and motivated Wes Welker...who muffed the punt that led to the Patriots' OT score in the November win...might also prove to be a big factor.  The Pats had Gronk then, and don't have him now.  They do have a healthy Danny Amendola and a bruising running game - both of which could be emphasized as the game runs its course.  Each side has potential playmakers who can be a factor in a close game, and the team that finds one (or more) should be left standing at the end.

Minimize the mistakes

It should go without saying, but it's too important to not factor into the equation.  The Patriots "got away with" their early turnovers in November and were able to rally from a 24-0 deficit to win 34-31 in overtime...which is certainly a cornerstone victory in their 12-4 regular season.  Do that in Denver, and the post-season will be over quickly.  Conversely, Manning always seems to have a hitch when it comes to deciphering a Belichick defense, so any mistake the Patriots can force him into needs to be finished off with a score.  Tempo will be big in this one...the team that imposes its' will and gameplan on the other will win it.

Projection:

Patriots 30, Broncos 27

Follow John on Twitter: @JRbroadcaster

 

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