The Patriots will travel to Denver to play the Denver Broncos on Sunday. The Patriots previously played the Broncos in November, but failed to finish the game. The Patriots get a chance to rectify that mistake and capture their 9th Lamar Hunt trophy. The Patriots are much more healthy than they were in the Week 12 game where they did not have Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Jamie Collins for the game in addition to losing Dont'a Hightower and Rob Gronkowski in the game plan. All five of those players will be available to play against the Broncos on Sunday. If you're curious to see what possible game plan the Patriots might use on offense, you should read this. So what must the Patriots focus on in order to advance to the Super Bowl and attempt to defend their title.
Utilize Julian Edelman All Over the Field: The most important skill player for the Patriots will be WR Julian Edelman. The Broncos have had past issues with Edelman, who has had a lot of success against Chris Harris Jr. The Broncos like to take chances on sideline-breaking routes, which means there is room for the Patriots to exploit the Broncos on short and intermediate routes. The Patriots best WR in that department is Julian Edelman, who is too quick for most CBs to single up in coverage. Edelman will line up all over the place to create matchups that favor the Patriots offense and Brady will turn to him to extend drives on 3rd down. If Edelman has the same typical game we're accustomed to, the Patriots could easily break 30 points unless the Broncos string together long drives on offense.
Contain the Broncos Edge Rush: The Broncos defense heavily relies on the pass rush from Demarcus Ware and Von Miller. Both players are healthy and will certainly give the Patriots fits. The best way for the Patriots to contain those two is to chip, double, and quick passes. The Broncos funnel their linebackers and safeties to the middle of the field, which means quick passes over the middle to the TE or RB will be tough to gain yards. I expect Rob Gronkowski and James White to stick in and help on the rush at times, which could limit their statistical production a bit. If the Patriots can neuter the impact that Miller and Ware have in the game, they can book their flights to Santa Clara on Sunday night.
Stop the Outside Zone Runs: The Patriots lost the game in November primarily due to the inability to defend the outside zone runs, a staple of a Kubiak offense. The Patriots defended the run well in the first three quarters, but the loss of Hightower coupled with the defense running out of gas late contributed to Denver being able to control the LOS in the 4th quarter. The Patriots will have Hightower and Collins back, which will help against those runs. Denver likes to run the defense one way and then create a cutback lane for the running back to bounce into and gash. The Patriots linebackers and defensive backs must be quick to fill those holes without over-pursuing the play in order to limit the gains when the RB cuts back. If the Patriots are able to limit the gains of those zone runs, they will be able to force Manning into obvious passing situations and allow for them to send exotic pressures.
Pressure Peyton Manning Up the Middle: The narrative does not change when it comes to how to pressure Manning. Manning is the slowest QB in the NFL and does not respond well to being pressured, especially when it comes up the middle. The Patriots know that Manning cannot escape pressure and if he can't get rid of the ball will go to the Fetal Position to protect himself. When the Patriots get Manning in the Fetal Position, they need to make sure he's down by contact so the officials can't blow the call. If the Patriots can get quick pressure up the middle in obvious passing situations, that will make it hard for the Broncos to move the ball and give the Patriots defense a chance to force a turnover.
Stay Disciplined on Defense and Take Advantage of Turnover Opportunities: Even though Peyton Manning is slower than molasses and throws a football about as well as yours truly, the one weapon he does have is experience. For the Patriots, that means not giving away the defense when Manning goes to the hard count. Peyton will look for any mental edge he can and if he knows what defense the opponent is using, he likely knows the right way to beat it. Disguising defenses will be difficult for the Patriots to do, but if they are able to fool Manning then there will be opportunities for turnovers. In addition to disguising the defense, they need to stay disciplined in their gap and cannot over-pursue the play. If the Patriots do get an opportunity to take the ball away, they must capitalize. The Steelers blew their chance to stop Denver when Manning threw a would-be interception towards William Gay, who promptly dropped it and the Steelers gave up the game at that point.
The score prediction of the game is Patriots 27, Broncos 19. The Broncos will be able to move the ball at times, but will struggle in the red zone where Manning's lack of arm strength will turn TD drives into FGs. I get the feeling that with a healthy skill group that Brady will have a strong day when it comes down to passing the ball. Edelman has another 10 catch, 100 yard game with at least 1 TD. The X-Factors post will come on Friday.