After a 27-20 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, New England reached their 10th AFC Championship game in 15 years. The Patriots will travel to Denver to face the top seeded Broncos, where a 17th Brady-Manning competition will decide the AFC’s Super Bowl representative. New England now look fully healthy for the first time in weeks and have all of their available playmakers back. The Patriots offense looked like the unit from the beginning of the year with Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski back at full strength, and the defense is arguably one of the best units of Bill Belichick’s career.
Three Keys to the Game
Beating Denver’s defense
Brady is 2-6 in Denver in his career and now faces the league’s best defense at Mile High. However, Denver struggled against Pittsburgh last week. While the defense did play well, they can be beaten. Last time the two teams met in Week 12, Edelman was out with a broken foot and Gronk was hurt shortly before overtime. With more weapons available, the Patriots have a much better chance to overcome Wade Phillips’ defense. After weeks of constant pressure during the final stretch of the regular season, a healthier offensive line did not allow Brady to be sacked against the Chiefs. But the Broncos led the league with 52 sacks this season, and dominated in Week 12. Brady had a vintage playoff performance against Kansas City, and is the best postseason quarterback of all time. The Patriots are 15-4 in the postseason when scoring first, so getting the measure of Denver early will be crucial.
Stopping Denver’s running game
The Broncos struggled to move the ball against Pittsburgh with Peyton Manning under centre. Any substantial progress came from the running game. CJ Anderson scored Denver’s only touchdown last week. Against the Patriots in Week 12, it was Anderson who scored Denver’s winning touchdown in overtime. New England have struggled against the run, allowing 173 rushing yards in Week 12 and 135 against the Chiefs last week. Having a healthy linebacker corps will be crucial for the Patriots. Dont’a Hightower returned last week, but Jamie Collins missed the second half.
Corralling Peyton Manning
Brady is 11-5 against Manning across their distinguished careers, but they are 2-2 in the playoffs. This weekend will be the 4th Brady-Manning AFC Championship showdown. But it may be a far cry from what we are used to seeing from arguably the two greatest quarterbacks of all time. Manning has struggled this season, and was benched after breaking Brett Favre’s career yardage record. Incredibly, Brady has thrown more touchdowns in Denver this season than Manning. Brady threw three touchdowns in Week 12, while Manning has thrown just one score at home all season. Manning didn’t throw a touchdown against the Steelers and had just 222 yards. He has been forced to lean more on the running game in Gary Kubiak’s offense, and has struggled with accuracy and timing all year. The Patriots were second only to Denver with 49 sacks this season and will be able to bring pressure against Denver’s offensive line. New England’s secondary is also fairly capable of covering Denver’s receivers.
Match-up to watch
Julian Edelman vs Chris Harris Jr.
With Edelman healthy in the first eight games of the regular season, the Patriots averaged 34.5 points per game. Without him for the final eight weeks, the Patriots could only average 23.6. In his return last week, Edelman had 10 catches for 100 yards. Chris Harris is physically similar to Edelman; small, fast and physical, and gives the Broncos the best match-up opportunity. Harris played injured last week and struggled, but should be relatively healthy for Sunday.
New England Patriots
The Patriots will reach their second consecutive Super Bowl and their seventh of the Bill Belichick era after beating the league’s best defense. Manning will struggle to put points on the board providing that the Patriots can shut down the run. Brady has a much better chance to score against a Denver defense that hasn’t played to its full potential over the past few weeks.