5 keys to victory for the Patriots over the Broncos on Sunday
1. Run, run, run
The most common theme regarding the Patriots so far this postseason has been the transformation of their offense. New England, normally known as a pass-happy, high-scoring attack for almost a decade has virtually flip-flopped their entire offensive strategy and become a ground and pound running offense. The Pats no longer need to rely on quarterback Tom Brady to throw for 350 yards and 4 touchdowns to win a game. Instead, LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen have carried the offense in the past few games. In their win against the Colts, the Patriots ran the ball 46 times and only passed 25 times. Yet they still scored 43 points.
Blount doesn't necessarily have to run wild again like he did versus Indianapolis, but himself and Stevan Ridley need to set the tempo early on. While the Broncos do have the 6th ranked run defense, it is clear that the Patriots are at their best when they run the ball, no matter who they are playing. It is important for the Pats to gain positive yardage on first down, further setting up shorter third down conversions, and also to run play-action passes to keep the 27th ranked Denver pass defense on their toes. If the Patriots can have consistent, long drives and avoid three-and-outs, they should be able to keep up with the explosive Broncos offense in terms of points. And if the running game is stagnant, the Patriots do have #12 to lead touchdown drives as well. If you were to ask me, I'd like my chances either way.
2. Win the battle of the trenches
Just like every single other game, the importance of winning the battle at the line of scrimmage cannot be measured. Whether its the Patriots O-line vs the Broncos D-line or vice versa, New England must have the advantage in both aspects to have a great shot at a victory. Tom Brady must have a clean uniform at the end of the game. When pressured, Brady tends to rush throws and feel "ghosts" in the pocket when protection starts to breakdown. Nate Solder, Logan Mankins and the big boys up front must make it their priority to make sure Shaun Phillips, Malik Jackson and company don't get to Brady. If he has time to survey the field and go through his progressions, Tom Brady will absolutely shred you.
On the other side of the ball, the depleted Patriots defensive line cannot allow Knowshon Moreno and the Denver running game to blast them for 280 yards again like they did in Week 12. Rookies Chris Jones, Joe Vellano and Sealver Siliga must stuff the middle early on and be physical up front. If Peyton Manning doesn't even have to throw the ball because Moreno and company tear apart the Patriots run D again, it might get ugly for New England. While the 3 rookie nose tackles have certainly improved as the season went along, it is vital that they, along with Patriots linebackers, win the battle of the trenches and be physical early and often. It should be fun to watch.
3. Pass rush must get to Manning
Among all NFL starting quarterbacks during the 2013 regular season, the least-sacked quarterback in the league was Peyton Manning. He was only sacked 18 times, which is a huge tribute to his record-setting season. The emergence of second-year pass rusher Chandler Jones and rookie Jamie Collins, along with the underrated Rob Ninkovich, Donta Hightower and others coming off the edge has been a huge plus for the Patriots defense all year long. New England ranked 5th in sacks during the regular season; if they can apply constant pressure on Manning, he may not put up Manning-like numbers.
In the two teams first meeting, Manning completed just 53% of his passes for only 150 yards, both season lows. If the Pats front seven can generate pressure on Manning and make him uncomfortable in the pocket, he might post numbers similar to that Week 12 game, but it is unlikely. When given a clean pocket and time to throw, not many quarterbacks in the league are better than Manning. Obvious. If the Broncos offensive line holds up, the Patriots coverage will eventually break down and Manning will find the open man. Even if they don't get sacks, QB hurries and knockdowns will serve as a win for the Patriots front seven. But as evidenced by Manning's record-setting season and the league low of sacks given up, it might be easier said than done.
4. Special Teams
If you were to chose one statement to describe the Patriots special teams play in their win versus the Colts, it would probably be sub-par at best. The Pats had three punt returns called back for penalties along with a high snap on a punt from long snapper Danny Aiken which led to a safety. To put it lightly, they simply cannot make those mistakes again this week if they want a shot at winning. With punter Ryan Allen still ailing from an injured shoulder, questions remain if he will be able to play, although signs point to him being able to go. Will Tom Brady take over the holding duties again this week? We will soon find out.
To add to already having to worry about stopping Peyton Manning and the lethal Broncos offense, Denver has one of the best and fastest return men in the NFL in Trindon Holliday. Holliday has run back 2 kicks for a touchdown this season, so the Patriots must neutralize him in the return game. It is imperative for New England to not give the Broncos good starting field position. In a game that should be a tight contest, field goals may be a factor as well. If the Patriots are set up for a game-winning or game-tying field goal late in the game, will Stephen Gostkowski be able to come through in the clutch?
5. Win turnover differential & red-zone efficiency
In a game of this magnitude, doesn't it always seem as if a crazy, unexpected play decides the game? Could a turnover (or two) be the deciding factor on Sunday? Flashback to the 2003 AFC Championship game. Peyton Manning threw 4 interceptions in the snow in a 24-14 Patriots win. Fast forward to the 2006 AFC Championship game. Tom Brady threw an interception to Marlin Jackson while driving to win the game with just 44 seconds left to send the Colts to the Super Bowl. If the Patriots can win the turnover battle (something they didn't do in Week 12) and keep mistakes to a minimum, they might come out on top.
Additionally, the Pats must convert when in the red zone. Field goals will not beat the Denver Broncos; you cannot outscore Peyton Manning by kicking field goals. The Pats must score touchdowns whenever they have the opportunity and force Manning to match them. This game could be a shootout, as both defenses are not necessarily at the top of the league in total defense. It will be interesting to see it all play out.
Caught up in all the glitz and glamor of "Brady-Manning XV", New England needs to remember that this is the Patriots vs Broncos, not Tom Brady vs Peyton Manning. If there is any coach who can prepare his team both mentally and physically for a heavyweight bout such as what will take place on Sunday, it is Bill Belichick. But then again, no quarterback in the NFL is better prepared than Peyton Manning. I really believe this will be an instant classic. When the stakes are highest, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning (well, sometimes) tend to shine. If you ask me, the Patriots have the edge on defense and coaching. The Broncos have the edge on offense and special teams. While the Pats were able to pull out a miraculous comeback in Week 12 to win 34-31 in overtime, this will be an entirely different game.
I'm not saying the Patriots have to play perfect to win this game, but they have to play pretty close to it. It wont be easy by any means. This game will be a dog fight. Denver has one of the loudest stadiums in the league, which could impact the Patriots offense if things start to not go their way. One of the shining attributes of this team is their mental toughness. That aspect of the team will need to be on full display Sunday at Mile High Stadium. If LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley can pace the run game, Brady can keep the offense under control, and the Patriots defense can at least slow down the Broncos explosive offense, the Patriots should be able to pull out the win. If not, it could get ugly for New England. Tom Brady will lead a game-winning touchdown drive inside two minutes for the Patriots to pull of the dramatic win (just as the script of the season has gone) and head to their 6th Super Bowl in the Brady-Belichick era.
Patriots 35, Broncos 33