Contact CU Independent Sports Editor Sam Routhier at Samuel.Routhier@Colorado.edu
Contact CU Independent Copy Editor Jared Funk-Breay at Jared.Funkbreay@colorado.edu and follow him on twitter @jaredfunkbreay
CUI Sports Editor Sam Routhier and Copy Editor Jared Funk-Breay fight for their teams in a debate on who will win this Sunday’s AFC Championship at Sports Authority Field: the Denver Broncos or the New England Patriots.
Disclosure: Jared and Sam are respectively lifetime Denver and New England fans. This post was written with the acknowledgement that leading up to a highly-touted game with the Super Bowl on the line this weekend, their competitive spirits and biases as fans of these teams inevitably bled into the arguments below.
Jared Funk-Breay: First, I have to say the fact that the Denver Broncos are the No. 1 seed in the AFC, beat the Patriots earlier this season and yet are listed as underdogs this Sunday is downright disrespectful and speaks to the unintelligence of the football community who doubts them.
There’s an idea floating around that the Broncos looked terrible against the Steelers last week. Luckily for Denver, games aren’t decided on outside perceptions, and quite frankly I don’t think the players care. If anything, they’ll be using it as motivation.
Since when has football been pretty anyway? The Broncos love to win ugly. They’ll kick five field goals if they have to. They’ll force a late turnover if they have to. Denver has gotten it done more than any other team in the AFC this year.
It’s funny, because if we’re going to judge a team based on the eye test, the Patriots have looked just as bad, if not worse, as the Broncos recently. For starters, the Patriots won by the exact same scoring margin against the Chiefs last week as the Broncos, and if the referees hadn’t blown a premature whistle, Denver would have won by two touchdowns instead of one.
Denver is a flawed team, but the idea that every Super Bowl-winning team is perfect is just not true. The Broncos’ deficiencies lie in their offense, and yet it has the players with the ability to make huge plays, like C.J. Anderson, Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. And if Peyton Manning plays even half as well as his old self, Denver will be in great shape.
For some reason, the media is forgetting about New England’s complete collapse in the regular season. Remember, the Pats started 10-0 and are now 12-4. Do the math. They lost narrowly to the Jets and then to the lowly Miami Dolphins in the regular season finale. In the most important game of the season, in which the Patriots needed a win to secure home field advantage, New England’s “high powered” offense put up a measly 10 points.
On another note, the Patriots once again played a ridiculously easy regular season schedule, only playing four games against playoff teams — the Steelers, Texans, Redskins and Broncos. They went 3-1. Denver played seven, going 5-2 in those games. The Broncos are more battle-tested than New England. This fact cannot be argued, and come Sunday it should pay off in what almost certainly will be a close game.
But let’s not get distracted by too many statistics. This isn’t this about yesterday; this isn’t about tomorrow; this is about right now. And right now, the Broncos are a better football team than the Patriots. This is hard for those wearing Tom Brady glasses to see. So throw out Tom Brady’s 2-6 record in Denver and the fact that he’s never won a playoff game there. Throw out the fact that the Broncos are 5-1 in AFC Championship games with John Elway in the organization. Throw out Peyton Manning’s 2-2 record against Brady in the playoffs.
Nate Silver, who correctly predicted every state in the 2012 presidential election using statistics, has an algorithm that gives odds on NFL games. Seven of his eight picks in the playoffs are correct so far, and he currently has the Patriots listed as the least likely team to win the Super Bowl (19 percent) and the Broncos (26 percent) as the second. Amazing what happens when you get rid of bias and look at things objectively.
Could the Broncos lose on Sunday? Of course they could. But give me a swarming No. 1 ranked defense that can get after the quarterback and force turnovers over a team that finished No. 6 in total offense any day. The Broncos can score enough points, they just need to slow down the Patriots on offense just like they did in the regular season.
Sam Routhier: The New England Patriots have made it to the last five AFC championships with excellent coaching and quarterbacking, and an unrivaled level of consistency.
Jared, you have a right to point out that the oddsmakers tabbing New England as the favorite in this upcoming game are choosing to overlook that the #2 seed is visiting the #1 seed that already beat them this season. Those who consider the Patriots the favorite do see a team among the NFL’s best (on both sides of the ball) visiting a team that has leaned on defense time and time again to make up for deficiencies on offense.
Denver, admittedly, was the toast of the NFL on defense this season, ranking first in Football Outsider’s defensive DVOA statistic. The Broncos have New England beat by a significant margin; the Patriots placed twelfth on the list. But the Patriots also rank neck and neck with Denver in some key defensive statistics from this past season.
Denver was first in the NFL in sacks with 52, but New England was close behind at second with 49. Denver had 82 passes deflected on defense during the regular season, while New England had 81, good for sixth and eighth, respectively, in the NFL. Perhaps most significantly, Denver allowed 18.5 points per game, barely a point better than New England’s 19.7.
Offense is where New England earns its paycheck, and that is exactly where Denver is going to need a miracle if it can stick around in Sunday’s showdown. The Patriots were one of three teams to average 29 points or more during the regular season at 29.1. Meanwhile, Denver averaged 22.2. In fact, Denver only eclipsed 30 points twice during the regular season, and when they hit 30 points exactly against these same Patriots, the Broncos needed overtime to do it.
You say that the Broncos can win ugly, and that tactic certainly served them well last week against the Steelers. But New England is not often a part of ugly affairs.
The Patriots play a disciplined brand of football that leads to very few mistakes. Over the course of the 2015 regular season, New England only turned the ball over 14 times (the Broncos by the way, were victims of 31 giveaways). A lot of that is credit to quarterback Tom Brady, who only threw seven interceptions this season. But it also shows that the Patriots are less likely to fumble the ball and leave the door open for the Broncos to turn turnovers into points the way Pittsburgh did in Denver last week.
I know what you’re thinking, ‘That’s exactly how Denver beat New England in the regular season’. But the fumbled punt that New England committed was the fault of Chris Harper, a punt returner who was low on the depth chart and was promptly cut following the miscue. The players Harper was filling in for, wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, are both healthy.
Which brings me to the final point of my opening statement: this is not the Patriots team that lost to Denver in November. This isn’t even the Patriots team that lost to Miami in Week 17. For years, New England has used the final weeks of the regular season as little more than a tune up heading into the postseason, and there is little evidence to believe that wasn’t the case this time around.
Edelman, the Patriots’ clear cut top slot receiver, only returned last week from a broken bone in his foot that had kept him out since November. Amendola also missed the Patriots’ loss to the Broncos due to a strained left knee he suffered the previous week in New England’s win over Buffalo. He too, has returned.
Also, we have Gronk. I’m just gonna let that explain itself.
On defense, the Patriots have defensive end Jamie Collins and linebacker Dont’a Hightower back in action, two key pash rushers who missed time during the season’s final weeks. And safeties Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty have rebounded from lower body injuries that plagued them late in the season.
The theme of the Patriots’ regular season might just have been the cost of injuries. But the theme of the playoffs, as it has been for half of a decade, has been working to peak at the right time. With this New England offense running on all cylinders, and the defense operating with the ages-old mantra of “bend and don’t break,” I don’t see a way that Denver can put up enough points to hang tough with the Patriots.
Jared Funk-Breay: Ah yes, the old “let’s mess around and lose home field advantage at the last second” strategy. Bill Belichick is obviously one of the greatest coaches of all time, but I guarantee you he wishes Sunday’s game was in Foxboro, regardless of whatever “experimenting” he was doing. And the Patriots are most definitely not peaking; they’ve lost two of their last three.
Of course, the Patriots have had a ton of injuries and they have some guys back for the rematch as you’ve mentioned. There’s no denying that. Edelman and Amendola will definitely be huge upgrades at wide receiver.
Against the Chiefs, New England looked solid, but did not like the world beaters some are making them out to be. Alex Smith and the Kansas City offense drove the ball down the field with 380 yards of total offense. The Chiefs actually outgained the Patriots, with New England amassing 340 yards, just 16 more than Denver did against the Steelers.
So even with everyone back, the Patriots didn’t set the world on fire. There’s absolutely nothing out there to suggest they’re going to blow Denver out of the water Sunday, and as I’ve already stated the odds are stacked against New England more than the Broncos.
One playoff note in the Kansas City game was when Amendola dropped a pass and it was deflected right into a defender’s hands. The Chiefs dropped it, and if it would have been caught it could have easily been an interception returned for a touchdown. These are the types of plays the Denver defense feasts on. Rest assured, if the Broncos are given an opportunity like that, they will take it and run.
You’ll hear a ton about how many New England players were hurt back in November, but not much about Denver’s injuries. The Broncos were missing pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, safety T.J. Ward, offensive lineman Louis Vasquez, and defensive lineman Sylvester Williams—not to mention Peyton Manning. All those guys are Pro Bowlers, save Williams. So if this a different Patriot team we’re going to see Sunday, it’s just as much a different Bronco team, too.
The key reason Denver has a great chance to knock off New England is because of the Broncos’ elite pass rush. It’s no secret the best way to slow down Tom Brady offenses is to put pressure on him (see 2007 and 2011 New York Giants, 2010 New York Jets, and 2009 and 2012 Baltimore Ravens).
This particular match-up favors the Broncos because, as you mentioned, Sam, there is no better team at rushing the passer than Denver. And the New England offensive line is less than stellar, even with Brady’s ability to release the ball quickly. Brady has been hit on 26 percent of his dropbacks this year, good for 17th in the league. The Broncos hit the quarterback on a league-high 34.7 percent of dropbacks. If there were ever a time for a team to get to Tom Brady, it would be on Sunday.
Ultimately, Edelman and Amendola are going to be important returns for New England, but Denver’s returning cast will make an even bigger difference. When at its best, the Broncos’ secondary can cover anyone, and when there’s pressure on the quarterback, it’ll have a field day.
The Denver offense needs to protect the ball. Turnovers have been a problem this year, as you mentioned. But many of those came early in the season when there was clearly something wrong with Manning. Peyton and company haven’t committed a turnover since his return. Look for big plays from C.J. Anderson, who came up big in the November game and last week against the Steelers.
The Broncos defense is going to keep the AFC Championship close — Denver hasn’t lost by more than a touchdown all season. With their experience in close games against top-notch opponents, I absolutely love Denver’s chances. Broncos fans will be going nuts at Mile High, and it’s going to have to take a gutsy as hell performance from New England if the Patriots are going to come away with their first road playoff win in nine years.
Sam Routhier: It’s funny the way someone can always make an impressive point if you use the right statistic, and Jared you ended on an excellent one noting that the Patriots haven’t won on the road on the postseason in nine years. Of course, the other part of that statistic is the Patriots have only played two playoff road games in the nine years since that win at San Diego in 2006 (both losses admittedly came to Peyton Manning). And if you want to go the neutral site route, look no further than last February’s playoff game in Glendale for an idea of how the Patriots did away from Foxboro recently.
I won’t hang my hat on this next point, but I do think it is worth mentioning for reasons other than media fervor. We’re only a few days away from “Brady-Manning XVII” and the way I see it, these two quarterbacks are at separate ends of the spectrum. This will undoubtedly have a factor on this game.
In the home corner, we have Peyton “Chicken Parm” Manning, advertising wonderboy, victim of unproven HGH allegations and owner of the worst statistical season of his career.
In an admittedly limited season for “The Sheriff,” Manning still found a way to throw 17 interceptions, more in a single season than he has thrown in 12 of his 18 seasons. He also completed the smallest percentage of his passes, 59.8%, since his rookie season. That rookie season—by the way—was 1998, which is two U.S. presidents ago (those are two-term POTUS’ mind you).
Peyton is old. He looks tired. He looks like he has to put every muscle in his body into throws 10 yard across the field that still wobble. He looks like he benefited greatly last week from a play in which he gave himself up but was inexplicably allowed to get back up and throw a pass anyway.
In short, he does not look like the caliber of quarterback needed to lead you to a Super Bowl, never mind win one.
And let’s not forget that even when he was in his prime as the best regular season quarterback of all time, his playoff record is far from perfect. There’s his last trip to the Super Bowl, the time before that, and even last year, when the Broncos couldn’t get past a Colts team that the Patriots seemed to have little problem with.
In the visitor’s corner then, we find Tom Brady. A man who needs little introduction, but I guess we can give him one anyway…the Greatest Of All Time. This season has not been one of Brady’s best, but it has been far from his worst. Brady led the league in touchdown passes with 36, doing so while throwing the ball to replacement-level players like Keshawn Martin and Brandon Bolden. I can only imagine what kind of numbers Brady would have put up if he had Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders to throw to. Brady also only threw seven interceptions, which is not only significantly lower than Peyton’s total this year, it is a smaller amount that Peyton has thrown in any season over his entire career. Seriously, look it up.
Brady’s had his mishaps in the playoffs as well as Peyton, but he’s also led the Patriots to six Super Bowls and won four, both numbers placing Brady among the best quarterbacks in league history. He stared down an elite pass rush just last week versus Kansas City and managed to come out ahead, proving that while he’s had his problems against physical defenses in the past, it’s not an insurmountable obstacle.
Overall, I think this Patriots roster, from top to bottom, is equipped for a return to the Super Bowl in two weeks because they’ve been there before. Winning playoff games in New England is in the team’s DNA, and while I’m sure all of these guys will be excited and nervous on Sunday, they’ll also be playing with a lot of experience in not only making it deep in the playoffs, but winning deep in the playoffs. Bill Belichick is an irrational, insane human being. But he is one of the winningest coaches in league history. I’m pretty sure you can’t say the same thing about Gary Kubiak, who will be the head coach in an AFC Championship for the first time ever this weekend.
There will be a lot of nervousness around the AFC Championship. Certainly fans of both teams will be on the edge of their seats, and you can bet the players will be fighting through some butterflies as well. Kubiak too will probably be nervous dipping his toe into the penultimate round of the NFL playoffs for the first time in his coaching career, and he rightfully should be. Because Belichick, Brady, and the New England Patriots are coming to Denver this weekend to do what they’ve been doing since Al Gore created the internet. They’re coming to win.
Denver hosts New England this Sunday at 1 p.m.. The game will be broadcast on CBS.