The AFC Championship promises to be a great game. After defeating Kansas City and Pittsburgh, respectively, the New England Patriots will travel to Denver to play the Broncos on Sunday for a trip to Santa Clara. The main storyline will be the 17th matchup between future Hall of Famers Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, the fourth time it has come in the AFC Championship.
On Saturday, Tom Brady looked much like he had during the first 10 games of the season. With Julian Edelman back and Rob Gronkowski having a full workload, Brady was able to get rid of the ball quickly and move the Patriots down the field. Edelman was not available the first time the Patriots played the Broncos this season and the team struggled at times to move the ball against a great defense. With him back, the Patriots will be able to put up points much easier.
On the other end of the spectrum, Manning didn’t play terrible, but he did not look like a quarterback capable of winning this week. He threw for 222 yards, but the Denver offense was quiet for most of the game and if not for a key fumble by Fitz Toussaint in the fourth quarter, they might have lost.
In order to win this week, the Broncos cannot rely on Manning. They will need big games out of Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson at running back. In order to counter this, the Patriots front seven will need to match the Denver running backs in the running and passing game. The Patriots’ ability to do this will come down to two players up front, Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower. This is significant because the first time these two teams matched up Collins did not play and Hightower left early with an injury.
They were both on the field for most of the Divisional Round game. The Chiefs had 135 yards rushing, but 44 of those were on Alex Smith scrambles or designed runs. The Kansas City running backs combined for 28 yards receiving as well, putting their overall yardage output at 119. If the Patriots can hold the Denver backs to that number, it is unlikely the Denver offense will be able to put up more points than the Patriots.
Against the Steelers, Hillman or Anderson carried the ball on 31 of 70 offensive snaps and were also targeted four times in the passing game. Together, that is 50 percent of the offensive snaps that running backs were the focus. Denver didn’t show much ability to get the ball downfield outside of one catch by Emmanuel Sanders that went for 34 yards and one catch by Bennie Fowler that went for 31 yards. However, both of those passes traveled fewer than 20 yards from the line of scrimmage.
This is where Collins and Hightower come into play. The Patriots love to use both of them to blitz the A gap (between the center and the guard) to either create pressure up the middle or blow up run plays. Hightower can also cover well and Collins is an excellent coverage linebacker.
Collins and Hightower will need to makes plays in order to contain the Denver running backs. It almost sounds blasphemous to suggest that a team should force Manning to beat them, but that’s what this season has come down to. The more the Patriots can make Manning throw the ball downfield from the pocket the better. Eliminating the run game and his safety valves in the passing game will make it difficult for Denver to keep pace with New England.
Despite having an excellent defense, the Broncos are still going to need to put up points. If Collins and Hightower play well throughout the game, the Broncos won’t have enough juice to reach Super Bowl 50.