Saturday, January 18, 2014

Four Point Stance: Patriots at Broncos


It's the matchup that many were hoping for, another highly competitive battle between two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. The question for Sunday's Broncos-Patriots showdown now is, exactly how much of the game's outcome will actually be dictated through the air?

It's a valid question, particularly given the effectiveness of each team's ground game of late. First up is New England, who amassed more than 600 rushing yards their last three games behind a late-season surge from running back LeGarrette Blount. Their turn-style approach to the ground game has kept defenses guessing, and their offensive line has created enormous opportunity for just about anyone handed the ball in the backfield.

That backfield has tallied 10 rushing touchdowns in the aforementioned three-game span, 80 percent of those coming from Blount's efforts, but now has to deal with a top-10 run defense.

On the other side there's Denver back Knowshon Moreno, who tore up the Pats' defense in their Week 12 meeting en route to 1,038 total rushing yards this season. Coupled with Montee Ball, the two averaged 4.5 yards a carry in 2013 and combined for 14 touchdowns. They'll now face the league's third-worst run-stopping unit, which has endured a ridiculous amount of crucial injuries this season but continues to show promise with its young replacement players. It'll no doubt be tested early, particularly with a full crew of healthy receivers available to spread them thin.

Oh yeah, and then there's the whole Tom Brady-Peyton Manning thing. With completely opposite arsenals as well as numbers this season, giving the edge to Manning seems easy, too easy. Brady's success in the postseason is well documented, and his success against his foe even more well known by now. Manning's season has been literally record breaking, however, and his level of play seems unbreakable. The loser of Sunday's game seems predicated on which team -- and specifically which man -- will blink first, and who can summon yet another epic playoff performance.

When the Patriots have the ball:
Brady's made the most of what he was dealt so far this year, and he may have a couple more of those wildcards back in action this weekend. With Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins listed as questionable for Sunday's mile-high matchup, his options look to be a little better than they were against Indianapolis. New England's running game will enjoy a Von Miller-less defensive front, who sacked Brady twice in their last meeting and contributed a touchdown, though the pressure in the backfield is still expected to be strong. As wideout Julian Edelman pointed out this past week, the onus will fall on the "big three" to ensure production equals points.

When the Broncos have the ball:
Tight end Julius Thomas's part in Denver's air attack has been a big talking point this week, and for good reason. He's been a beast in the red zone, and New England has struggled to keep tight ends at bay thus far, mainly due to their injuries in the secondary and at linebacker. The Pats defensive unit is healthy now though, or as healthy as one could hope, which will likely make Denver's pass productivity dependent on winning individual coverage battles. Thomas's battle against rookie Jamie Collins will be interesting, as well as cornerback Kyle Arrington's likely matchup against former teammate Wes Welker. If things don't work out early for Manning it'll likely be back to basics, with another 50 some-odd rushing attempts to keep things rolling.

Coaching. With both teams showing equal strengths once already this season, and Bill Belichick's already historic call to defer in overtime and use the wind as his 13th man, this one could come down to yet another crucial move by either head coach. Broncos coach John Fox was absent for that game, but let us not forget that the two have met under similar circumstances before, battling it out in the 2003 Super Bowl while Fox was with the Carolina Panthers. While it may not be the weather that dictates any late decisions this time around, both men have proven track records in high-pressure situations, and a key call at the right time will likely swing the momentum and lead one team into the championship.

New England has won the previous four games against Denver, their last loss coming in 2009. The Brady-Manning scale is tipped largely in New England's favor, as he holds a 10-4 record against his fellow signal-caller. In his career, Brady is 4-5 against Denver but 5-2 in Conference Championships. Despite Manning's amazing season, it was Brady with the superior stats in their last meeting, going 34-for-50 for three touchdowns and zero interceptions. Manning tallied only 150 yards through the air with two touchdowns and an interception.

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