There is no doubt in my mind that the road to the superbowl in the AFC will go through both these teams. The Texans and their vaunted defense was over matched. Matt Schaub has no business being mentioned in the upper echelon of QB's in the league, and one mountain of a man successfully disrupted a very good running game. New England played the game of the season and showed that their offense is much more elite than the Texans defense. I want to examine a few things in this post----first I'm going to layout how I think the seeding and playoff outcomes will play out, then I'm going to outline some strategy on how to approach a rematch with the Patriots. Briefly, let me outline why I think the Broncos and Pats are the two best teams in the AFC right now:
Broncos: Top 5 offense and defense. Has enough players and enough interchangeable parts to be able to much up with New England's offense even if the Pats still hold an edge in this particular matchup. We can force enough punts to give our offense more opportunities to score.
Pats: Dangerous running game and dangerous passing game. Secondary is much improved, both Talib and Dennard can man up on the outside. The Pats will play a lot of Cover 2 Man under to keep plays in front of them.
Ravens: Inconsistent offense and poor defense with a lot of injuries and missing pieces.
Texans: Struggling defense (don't forget the Jags and Henne putting all those points on them), offense reliant on running game.
NE is better than anyone else on offense and their defense is starting to play better especially in the secondary. We have the most complete team with both an offense and defense that feeds off each other and a special teams that consistently wins the field position battle for us. Here's a look at where everyone stands now, and what teams are left for each to play.
Table is deleted, looked too weird
Now, let me just get this out of the way first. I expect NE to win out and HOU to lose at least one game. The Patriots play SF at home and NE is a force in Foxboro. Besides after yesterday, even if SF's defense can slow them down, I don't expect their offense to keep up. I also expect The Broncos to win out, the Ravens to hold onto their division, and for Houston to win the #2 seed thanks to an early season victory against us. The 6 seed is inconsequential because whoever gets it will be vastly overmatched against the rest of the AFC playoff teams except for IND and BAL who are unlikely to get the 3rd seed. Here is what it will look like:
6. AFC North
Setting up the matchups, in the first round we have:
AFC North @ DEN
IND @ BAL
We mop the floor with PIT or CIN and BAL squeaks by IND. So the divisional round ends up like this:
DEN @ HOU
BAL @ NE
Even if the Colts beat Baltimore, neither team is making it past NE. They advance to the conference championship. We on the other hand face a rematch in Houston. Now, what plagued us in our first meeting 1) Tracy Porter and Safety mishaps 2) No rhythm on offense 3) Arian Foster. All three areas have improved. We aren't seeing the type of breakdowns in our secondary, Porter has long since been replaced by a more reliable Chris Harris and Tony Carter, and our run defense is ranked 7th in the league. Schaub isn't getting it done the 2nd time around, and though Foster will get some yards, I don't think their offense will have enough to match blows with ours----which by the way is much, much, improved since that meeting. Denver wins, and though it is a road game, it will also be played indoors which negates any weather considerations.
Breaking down NE
This is more a philosophical breakdown and the problems NE creates. With Gronk and Hernandez, the Pats can essentially run their entire offense from 12 personnel. Their parts are so interchangeable that they can be moved all over the formation to create mismatches. They can split their back wide and bring Hernandez into the backfield creating a mismatch on the LB. Both TE and WR can exploit the outside, the middle, and the seem, and when coverage is good, you still have checkdowns capable of getting big gains.
They can run no huddle through this formation---and this is the most important part-----they can be just as effective on the ground as they can through the air with this personnel. Lots of flexibility, if you show a smaller defense with more DB's, Brady can check into a run and both Hernandez and Gronk are very good at blocking. Have your base D in there? Fine, they will exploit it through the air.
The key against a potential rematch with NE hinges on our defenses ability to be every bit as versatile and effective as their offense, and just kicking around some ideas last night in the open thread, here are some of my thoughts.
What killed us last time was no substitutions, not being set, bad tackling, and bad LB play. A huge reason their rushing attack was so potent was the fact that hey snapped the ball before our guys were even set. So here is how JDR should approach it:
- Put personnel in that can play an entire series, no substitutions.
- Put personnel in that can defense the run and pass on any given play.
In my opinion, here is what that defense looks like:
D Line: Von and Elvis ends, Vick/Unrein, Ayers/Wolfe/Jackson Tackles
Both Von and Elvis can set the edge, Vick and Unrein have been used in both rushing and passing situations, so just think that either one of them works. Same thing with Ayers and Wolfe, though Wolfe has been used more at end in running situations.
If you have a set with Von, Elvis, Vick, and Ayers you have four guys that can bring pressure. Also, Ayers and Vick have been used in zone coverage with a blitz scheme---not that I'm advocating for either of them being in coverage against anyone for NE. The last few games Vick has gotten good push against the running game, and we know that Ayers is more than capable of making plays here too.
This gives you flexibility and a line of guys that can defend both.
I'm a little more nervous about Wolfe and Unrein as a group against the run, though Unrein holds the point of attack pretty well. The point is, pick two guys from the 4 and they are the DT's on that drive. Von as a hybrid pass rusher/LB gives you flexibility in playing an odd man front or even man front.....in fact most everyone in this rotation can. Pick 2 and plug them in, on the next series use a different combo to preserve stamina.
Linebackers: DJ Williams/Wesley Woodyard, Danny Trevathan/Wesley Woodyard
I commented that you might even want to think about Danny and DJ exclusively, but it really depends on what you want. From all accounts DJ is a better coverage in man, and WW has done some damage in zone. Danny has almost exclusively played man. So, mix and match depending on what you want. You can play zone and keep everything in front of you----this assumes minimal yards after reception, or you can man up and provide some safety help.
WW, DJ, and Danny can all make plays in the running game, though to that end I'd feel more comfortable with a WW DJ combo.
Secondary: Champ, Carter, Harris, Moore, Adams/Leonard
Here's where we can talk about what you could do coverage wise. Welker is Brady's outlet, no denying that. Lloyd can make plays over the top, but let's face it he's not a #1 in the same mold of a dominating Calvin Johnson or something like that. The TE's create issues, as does the checkdown from the backfield. So do you man up against Welker and Lloyd with Champ and Harris? That leaves a couple of safeties and LB's on the TE's. With their size, it is hard to envision the NE TE's as not having a physical advantage over anyone we can cover them with.
Do you play Cover 2 Man Under and keep the big plays in front of you? I can guarantee Brady will counter with either a running play or 4 verts which will leave a favorable one on one somewhere----also think of the verts clearing out the LB's and leaving a checkdown with plenty of space.
Do you play a soft zone and "bend but don't break" philosophy and hope for a mistake at some point? NE doesn't make many mistakes, Brady has thrown a handful of INT's all season.
Do you play man across the board and bracket a guy or two with a safety/LB?
There are a million things to contemplate in this matchup, but that really isn't the point of this article. The point is, a one-size fits all approach is what the Broncos have been cultivating in recent weeks. Remember when the Broncos played the Chiefs with a lot of nickel even on rushing downs? We have seen a lot of interchangeability with personnel and this is why. The Broncos know that a SB run is likely to pit them against NE at somepoint. You can't substitute, Brady will run no huddle. You can't get too cute with blitz schemes, Brady recognizes them. You have to put your best 11 guys out there---a group that can defend the pass and run regardless of down and distance, and you have to win most of your battles man up.
Really, we are not talking about shutting the Patriots down, we are talking about limiting their impact. But I think if Del Rio takes the one defense for all approach and moves his guys around correctly, it will accomplish that goal. We have a lot of impactful versatility on defense just as the Pats do on offense. Now we need our guys to continue and sharpen each other because come playoff time, we will go only as far as our defense takes us. Manning will be Manning and our offense will score points. I think our special teams will chip in and help us control field position, hell, Holliday might even give us a score or two who knows? But the road to the SB goes through NE, and more specifically through their offense. Contain it to 21-24 points and we have a shot.
Hope you enjoyed the read, if you'd like to speculate on defensive personnel groupings or what the Broncos could do to slow the Pats down, by all means share your thoughts. Until next time Broncos fans, cheers!