The last time the New England Patriots played the Denver Broncos, they held a 21-7 lead at one point in the fourth quarter. However, the Broncos were able to come back into the game – in part because rookie punt returner Chris Harper, who was active because of the absences of Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, muffed a punt, which was recovered by Denver.
New England lost the game and consequently home-field advantage. Furthermore, it was the first of four consecutive bad special teams performances. In order to leave Denver victoriously on Sunday, the unit needs to be on top of its game again and cannot afford to turn the ball over or give the Broncos good field position.
How important field position can be was visible last Sunday, when the Broncos hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional playoff round.
Pittsburgh went 3-and-out on its first drive and punter Jordan Berry kicked the ball 52 yards to Denver’s 28-yard line. However, Omar Bolden, who was placed on injured reserve earlier this week, returned the ball 42 yards to the Steelers’ 30-yard line. Five plays later, the Broncos led 3-0.
It was a sign of things to come.
After a failed 4th down attempt by Pittsburgh and a 3-and-out by Denver, the Broncos punted the ball away. However, returner Markus Wheaton, who was pressed into action because of the absence of Antonio Brown (sounds familiar?), did neither catch the punt nor stop Denver’s special teams standout Kayvon Webster from downing it at the 3-yard line. After a quick 3-and-out, Berry had to punt the ball again. This time, the ball traveled only 27 yards – again giving Denver great field position. Four plays later, the Broncos led 6-0.
Overall, the Steelers were unable to be competitive when it comes to the field position battle. Comparing the average drive-starting points illustrates this:
Denver Broncos: DEN 36
Pittsburgh Steelers: PIT 21
On average, the Steelers had to travel 15 yards more to get to the end zone. Given the fact that the game was a close contest, which ended 23-16 in Denver’s favor, even a few yards could have made a difference – especially considering that the Broncos started two of their first three drives in Steelers territory, which helped the team jump to an early 6-0 lead.
To leave Denver victoriously, the Patriots have to be more competitive when it comes to their starting field position. The good thing for New England is that the team has veteran returner Danny Amendola back on the field and that Ryan Allen is a more consistent punter than Pittsburgh’s Jordan Berry. Amendola and Allen are just two pieces of the puzzle, though, as the Patriots’ kick-coverage units also have to play a mistake-free game.
When the two top seeds face off with a Super Bowl berth on the line, it projects to be a close game. Therefore, all three of the Patriots’ units need to bring their A-game in order to advance. The AFC Championship could very well come down to whose special teams win the field position battle.