New England Patriots (1 – 0)
Denver Broncos (1 – 0)
The AFC Championship Game is in Denver this weekend mainly because the Denver Broncos beat the New England Patriots (in Denver) in their match up earlier this season. That was a tremendous game that went into overtime and featured back ups at key positions for both teams. Notably, Brock Osweiler was the starting quarterback for the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots were missing key players on both sides of the ball.
Neither team is as banged up this week as they were during that contest. The Broncos, in fact, seem as healthy as they have been all year with an astonishing Injury Report that listed no players as limited in practice this week. On the other hand, the Patriots listed 16 players on their report, though this may well be some brinkmanship on the part of Bill Belichek and his coaching staff.
Both teams will be close to or at full strength and the weather in Denver shouldn’t be too much of a factor in deciding the contest.
This will mark the 17th match up between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning led teams. However, anyone following football knows that Brady is the better quarterback this year and the game is unlikely to come down to Manning putting up amazing numbers from the QB position. While Brady’s play may well determine the Patriots’ offensive success, Manning’s mind will have far more to do with the outcome than his arm.
It has been interesting to me this week to note predictions and commentary that suggest the Broncos may be blown out in this game. While they could surely lose – and them might – predictions of a lopsided outcome seem to ignore how good the Bronco defense is and, by good, let’s not forget the 2015 Broncos are actually the best defense in the league.
This is likely to be a great game. It’s likely to be a close game. It’s likely to keep fans on the edge of their seats.
KEY MATCH UP
The key match up in this game is the Denver defense vs. Tom Brady and the New England offense. Last week, the Broncos didn’t quite look like themselves on defense and, if the suffer similar lapses to what we saw against the Steelers (Broncos fans all over are hoping the Steelers are just a bad match up for the Broncos and the two games against Pittsburgh during which the defense didn’t look like itself can be chalked up as aberrations), the Patriots may well dominate the game.
I don’t think that’s going to happen. The defense has been terrific all year and, though I know the Patriots can be explosive offensively and their weapons are top-notch and getting healthy, I don’t see why Denver cannot limit them. I expect that it to happen. This will be a low scoring affair because the Bronco defense will be able to keep the Patriots in check (and the Bronco offense is not built to score a lot of points at any rate).
Ronnie Hillman and CJ Anderson have a chance to be playoff legends for the Denver Broncos. In Gary Kubiak led offenses, the ground game is designed to wear down opposing defenses, especially at home and especially in the fourth quarter. Denver, by staying faithful to the running game throughout the second half of the season, was often rewarded with long Hillman or Anderson runs that put games out of reach for their opponents.
An effective ground game on Sunday will keep the Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offense on the sidelines. It will also give the Denver defense a chance to stay fresh. Additionally, a good running game will keep the pressure off Peyton Manning’s arm and will force the Patriots to loosen up on defense.
The winning recipe for the Broncos includes a very healthy ground attack. They will be hard pressed to win without one.
The city of Denver wants to be back in the Super Bowl. The city wants to see Peyton Manning get a storybook ending to his remarkable career. We’ve seen it here before with John Elway and we want to see it again with Peyton Manning.
The Patriots don’t care about any of that and they believe, rightly, they are playing good football and they may also believe they are the more complete team in all three phases coming into Denver on Sunday. That may be true, too.
I read more than a few times this week about the Patriots dominating the Kansas City Chiefs last weekend. I watched that game and it didn’t seem that way to me. In fact, it seemed the Chiefs were one bounce off a helmet away from getting the ball back with a chance to tie the game in its later stages. Regardless, I didn’t think New England dictated play and had their way with the Chiefs.
I don’t think they will dictate play against the Broncos, either.
This defense is excellent. This quarterback must be as motivated as he has been in his career. This team has, time-and-again, found a way to win the tough games.
This will be a tough game. I am not picking against my team.
Denver will gut out, grind out, emote out a very difficult win Sunday giving the team a chance at their third title and Peyton Manning one more shot at a world championship.
New England Patriots 20
Denver Broncos 24