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NFL Playoffs Patriots vs Broncos: Questions and Takeaways from Watching Peyton Manning Valiantly Defeat the Steelers

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Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning hasn't played a full game in months and the claims were that his horrible production was the result of him valiantly fighting through an injury.

Yesterday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers was the first time we could watch Manning in action to see whether or not he was fully healthy and back to his former self. According to one pot-stirrer, Manning was great!

Of course, head over to minute 24:20 of this audio at WEEI to hear Patriots' head coach Bill Belichick's thoughts on Charley Casserly.

"There's so much stuff out there that's so inaccurate, it's comical," Belichick said on WEEI. "And who's been wrong more than Charley Casserly since he's left the Redskins. Who's been wrong more? Wherever he's been, whatever he's done, I mean his percentage is as good as a meteorologist."

And if Belichick compares you to a meteorologist, that means that he thinks you should be fired.

So I thought it'd be worth watching the game to see for myself, to evaluate the current state of the Broncos, and to see whether Manning was actually back, and to see if Denver is all they're cracked up to be.

Peyton Manning isn't as bad as people think, but he's still bad

Manning is treated like he's Mark Sanchez continually running into Brandon Moore's buttocks around here, but that's not fair. He started the season playing like the worst quarterback in the league, but I saw a quarterback comfortably in the pejorative game manager role. He's still well below average, but he has a few packaged plays that he's comfortable using- and they all make sense.

Remember in the middle of the season when the Broncos played the Green Bay Packers, and Peyton went 21/29 for 340 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception? Many were heralding it as the return of Manning of old, but then Peyton promptly Houdini'd and disappeared off the face of the earth. Manning had two things going for him:

1) The Broncos were coming off a bye week, so he was well rested and able to put marginal amounts of zip on the ball.

2) The Packers allowed him the entire middle of the field to march down the field.

Peyton can still throw with some gumption in the middle of the field with quick slants from his slot receivers, seam routes from his tight ends, and in cuts from his wide receives. If the Patriots clog the middle of the field, Manning only has one other throw: the comeback route on the sideline.

Manning doesn't have the strength to make physical plays down the sideline, but his mental game is still there (as the announcers love to share). The comeback pass is perfect for Manning because it involves timing his throw to arrive at the exact second the receiver cuts from the defender.

This is literally the only sideline throw that Manning is still capable of making and the Steelers cornerbacks are far less talented than those of the Patriots. So if New England can take away the middle of the field from Manning with some linebacker drops into coverage, or even a third safety on the field, then Manning won't have any passes he's comfortable completing. But the Patriots absolutely cannot let him have the middle of the field.

The Steelers focused on the run and bottled up the Denver offense

Broncos running back C.J. Anderson scampered for a 34 yard gain right before halftime. The Denver running backs combined for 110 yards on 31 carries, for a 3.55 yards per carry clip. Remove that Anderson run and the Broncos averaged 2.20 yards per carry on every other rush. It's important to remember that the Steelers are familiar with defending Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak's rushing attack from his time with the Baltimore Ravens in 2014. Kubiak's rushing game has gashed the Patriots.

If the Patriots can stuff the Broncos rushing attack, then Manning will be forced to throw the ball in third and long situations, and he is extremely limited in his capabilities. The Steelers used their traditional 3 DT fronts on early downs, and the Patriots have the horses to emulate with Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Akiem Hicks, and Sealver Siliga.

The Broncos run defense is the real deal

The Steelers are still convinced that you have to run the football to win games as their running backs picked up 45 yards on 17 carries for a 2.65 yards per carry rate. 15 of those yards came on a single carry, so the Steelers were averaging under 1.88 yards per carry for most of the day.

That's dumb.

Look for the Patriots to ignore the rushing game and focus on getting the ball out quickly in the open field instead of wasting nearly a quarter of their offensive snaps on fruitless endeavors. The Patriots have had success with this game plan against dominant defensive lines time and time again. They've done it against the Jets and Bills and Chiefs, and the 2014 Seahawks and Lions. It's a plan that works.

The Broncos secondary is slightly overrated

Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. is injured and will be severely limited and the Steelers had an absolute field day tearing down the Denver secondary. Pittsburgh drew up a bunch of plays that could get the ball into the hands of their receivers on quick slants or crossers to take advantage of the Broncos in the open field.

Harris is the only cornerback on the Broncos that could conceivably match-up well against Danny Amendola in the slot, or on Julian Edelman all across the formation, so now the Patriots could have two receivers running the show against the Broncos. Add in James White out of the backfield and some tight ends named Rob Gronkowski and Scott Chandler (5 catches for 58 yards and a touchdown against the Broncos in the regular season) and we have ourselves mismatches all across the line.

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If the Patriots can find a way to win in the trenches against the Broncos run offense, then New England will be able to dictate the course of the game and walk away with a victory.