Contact CU Independent Copy Editor Jared Funk-Breay at Jared.firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on twitter @jaredfunkbreay
The Broncos and Patriots are in the AFC Championship game for the second time in three years. What else could you want from life? The CUI has the breakdown.
WHEN THE BRONCOS PASS…
It’s no secret Peyton Manning is a shadow of his former self. After being pulled in the regular season due to throwing 17 interceptions and only nine touchdowns, Manning has come back and played more conservatively. In his game and a half since coming back, he hasn’t thrown a touchdown or turned the ball over, but has lead the offense to 27 and 23 points the last two games. The Denver wide receivers have the ability to make big plays, but drops from the likes of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders have plagued the Broncos in recent weeks. The Patriots’ secondary is quietly one of the best in the NFL, and they also are second in the league in sacks. Manning will definitely have to squeeze in some passes in to move down the field. The Broncos shouldn’t count on the quarterback having a big game through the air, just how it’s been for most of the season.
WHEN THE BRONCOS RUN…
Denver would seem to have more success on the ground. If the Broncos are smart, they’ll use a heavy dose of C.J. Anderson. He’s been Denver’s best running back this year when healthy without a shadow of a doubt. Anderson has averaged 4.7 yards a carry, compared to Ronnie Hillman’s 4.2. And in the earlier matchup against New England, Anderson had two huge runs, including the game-winning touchdown. It’s hard to see how the Denver offense can be successful without running the ball well, so look for the Broncos to set the tone earlier and often with an offensive line that is meant to clear the path for running backs using their zone-blocking scheme.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS…
Tom Brady against the Denver pass rush and elite secondary — this is the matchup everyone’s been waiting for. Brady had a relatively successful outing the last time he came to Denver in November, throwing for 280 yards and three touchdowns. But he was missing his top two wide receivers in Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, who will both be returning Sunday. The key for the Broncos to slow down the passing game is getting pressure on Brady. They pressure quarterbacks on 34.7 percent of dropbacks, good for best in the league.
As for individual matchups, the most difficult task will be for Aqib Talib. He’ll be most responsible for guarding the almost unstoppable Rob Gronkowski. In his last outing, Gronk amassed six catches, 88 yards and one touchdown before leaving the game late in the fourth quarter with an injury. All things considered, Talib did a decent job, as Gronkowski has torched defenses for much worse this year. Chris Harris should be matched up with Julian Edelman, both of whom are coming off injuries but should be good to go. Look for Bradley Roby to also get some time against Edelman. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware will almost certainly pressure Brady, but even then you have to assume he will get the ball to his receivers at a relatively successful rate. This is New England’s bread and butter- the Patriots will be able to move the football through the air, otherwise they are in trouble.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN…
New England has essentially given up on running the ball, at least that’s what it seems like based off of its game against Kansas City last week. The Patriots recorded only seven runs with their running backs and Steven Jackson led the team with 16 measly yards. Jackson was just signed in late December and is clearly past his prime, yet he is their best option. Don’t expect the Pats’ strategy to differ come Sunday, as Denver is third in the league in stopping the run, and only allowed 39 yards on the ground in the last meeting.
The kickers. Brandon McManus and Stephen Gostkowski are two of the best in the league, and at altitude they’ll likely have a big impact on the game. Gostkowski currently holds the record for most consecutive made extra points, and is 22-of-24 in the postseason. In his first playoff game, McManus went 5-of-5, including a 51-yard field goal with a wicked crosswind, to set the Broncos’ record for makes in a game. If the game comes down to a kick for either team, count on it going in. Both have range beyond 60 yards and could lead to a ‘whoever has the ball last wins’ scenario.
Sunday offers a ton of intriguing matchups, but it’s ultimately going to come down to how the Denver defense handles Tom Brady and his plethora of weapons. The Bronco defense has lead the team to victory all year, and with the help of a loud Sports Authority Field at Mile High, it should be able to get the job done. Look for the game to be a close affair just like the last one, and the Broncos have proven they can pull out tight and ugly games. Denver is 9-3 in matchups decided by less than a touchdown and 5-2 in games against playoff teams. That, and the fact that the game is at Mile High, gives the Broncos the slightest of advantages.
Prediction: Broncos 23, Patriots 20