The first time these two teams squared off, the Patriots have Rob Gronkowski and a viable passing attack. Over the past few weeks, the Patriots have adjusted to life after Gronk and have gone with a run-heavy attack and everyone's expecting more of the same on Sunday. But what if the Patriots opt to go back to the pass?
We've touched upon how the Broncos could be without their most consistent corner, Chris Harris, as well as their best player, Von Miller. We also need to point out that the Broncos will be without defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson and, very likely, without fellow defensive tackle Derek Wolfe. With so many injuries to the defensive line, it might make sense to run the ball, but the loss of these players can point to an even greater fallout.
In the first match-up, the Patriots allowed 17 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. 3 sacks, 4 quarterback hits, and 10 pressures. Miller, Vickerson, and Wolfe combined for all 3 sacks, all 4 quarterback hits, and 5 of the additional pressures.
That leaves 5 pressures coming from the rest of the defense. 5 pressures from players the Patriots will see on Sunday.
This past week saw the Broncos rack up 14 total pressures on Philip Rivers on 4 sacks, 1 hit, and 9 pressures. Pro Football Focus has San Diego as their 24th ranked pass blocking unit and the Broncos produced pressure equivalent to the average defense San Diego has faced.
Now sure, in week 17 the Broncos racked up a ludicrous 43 pressures (3 sacks, 3 hits, 37 pressures) without Miller, and that can't be ignored. But the Broncos dialed up the pressure on a young Terrelle Pryor in order to force him to make quick decisions. 21 of the pressures aren't attributed to anyone on the Raiders, implying an overwhelming sell-out of a defensive attack. You can't expect the Broncos to take the same approach against Tom Brady.
The Patriots offensive line, while not spectacular, has been middle of the road, if not slightly above average when they're playing well (and they have been as of late). 12 of the 17 pressures from the first game are no longer active, and in their stead are three lesser players. The Patriots get Marcus Cannon back, and four of their five linemen are coming off of successful weeks (sorry Ryan Wendell!).
If the offensive line plays as well as they've been playing, then it's not just possible that they'll run over the Broncos defense- it's also possible that they can keep Brady on his feet for the whole game. If they can accomplish those goals, it's extremely likely that the team will be a more than successful day at work.