No one should be really surprised to find the Patriots and Broncos squaring off in the AFC Championship this year...Andy Dalton is well on his way to becoming the AFC's Tony Romo and the Colt's legitimate playoff prospects ended with Reggie Wayne going out with a torn ACL for the rest of the season...
Both Pats and Broncos fans will want to claim that their team is more banged up...but the fact is they are in the same ballpark
Wilfork, Kelly, Mayo, Gronkowski, Spikes (?) , Vollmer
Clady, Miller, Harris, Vickerson, Moore, Wolfe, Koppen
You could almost form the core roster of a Championship caliber team with these IR lists! I'm starting to think that the winner will be the team that loses the least amount of starters in the middle of this battle!
Somehow both of these teams have managed to get to this point despite getting hit hard by the injury bug this year.
After Wilfork and Mayo went down the Patriots run D (30th) was soft; Knowshon Moreno for 220+ yds soft, but the Pats have recently addressed this since Sapoaga trade alone didn't seem to be the solution. Former Bronco DT Sealver Siliga has been solid for the Pats, which has helped keep their run D more respectable. (incidentally Siliga was traded to the Seahawks because of the Broncos apparent "depth" (now depleted) at D-line). One caveat is that the Pats will now be without LB Spikes, who has been quite the force himself in stopping the run. A Mayo and Spike-less LB corp is sure to brighten the eyes of Manning & Co. but the Broncos definitely should not expect that same super stellar level of success running the ball on this improved Patriots front. LB Wilson is pretty fast and a good coverage LB, who will undoubtedly be in on some big plays, and is THE reason for the transition from Spikes. However it is because of this apparent improvement I believe we will see more Monte Ball, as he is a more physical runner trending upwards big time, while employing Moreno in a manner similar to how Vereen is used in New England.
New England's secondary, like Denver's, shows flashes of great play but is overall very leaky. For this reason I don't expect them to have the tools to take on a Denver offense with so many weapons, especially as the Broncos will now have Julius Thomas for this game, unlike the previous match up. Word on the street is that Denver receivers are "soft", and therefore we can most certainly expect the New England DBs to be playing very physical press coverage much of the time. Thomas and Decker will have to continue their recently more physical play in order to overcome this. EAT GREEDY for Von folks!
Denver's defense has been much maligned this season (justifiably), and more so than the Patriots'. It really seems there was no plan B for a scenario in which Bailey wasn't available or playing to his prior form...Aside from the fact that Bailey's second return this year seems to be a lot more successful than the first, there have only been two bright spots in the Denver secondary; DRC and Chris Harris (now on IR), as well as Danny Trevathan as a coverage LB...virtually everyone else has been a huge liability at some point (IMHO the complete lack of continuity in who starts game to game builds very little all-important chemistry). However as one might expect, when the defensive front was able to get pressure consistently in a game the secondary fared MUCH better. This time around the Patriots won't have the luxury of going against a 4th round rookie CB or a washed up backup...they will be up against DRC and a Bailey that seems to have found his stride again. Furthermore, everyone knows Gronk is a nightmare for opposing defenses; his absence in this upcoming game is definitely fortuitous for the Denver defense...both in for the pass D and run D as it limits the threat in the middle of the field that causes problems from both ends on most teams. The Pats should expect a more sound secondary than last time. [Unless JDR has completely lost his mind and starts the uber-bust-roster-spot-waste-who-has-no-clue-what-he's-doing Bolden.]
Unlike the secondary, the Broncos' defensive front has been pretty good (regardless of the lack of media fan-fare), ranked 7th overall, tied with Seattle, and a BIG part of that has been he outstanding play of Terrence Knighton. What makes this even more impressive is the fact that this group lost two key starters (Vickerson and Wolfe) and still did a great job. The Broncos OLBs should also be credited for this success against the run, Trevathan, formerly Miller, and now Irving have all been able to fly to the runner, limiting gains. This front struggled somewhat immediately after losing Vickerson and cumulatively when Wolfe was gone, but they seem to have since found their way with the improved play of 1st round pick Sly Williams and addition of DE Jeremy Mincey late in the season.
This brings us to the now touted New England rushing attack, featuring 250 lb Legarrette Blount at the helm. With Gronk starting out injured, the departure of Welker and an alleged murderer, an inevitably injured Amendola, and a bunch of green rookies left, everyone assumed, even before the season began, that the Patriots would be leaning more heavily on the run. With Ridley in the backfield, it seemed like even more of a no brainer [ heck, he was my 2nd pick in FF...one of the greatest busts of FF history...]. However with Vereen injured and Ridley's lack of production and fumbles, the Patriots turned to the grit of Tom Brady and an admirable season from Julian Edelman, albeit really ugly at times. The temporary return of Gronk saw a spike in the Patriots offensive production, but the backfield carousel continued until the last couple of games where Blount seems to have been crowned as the winner of the season-long competition. Patriots fans are undoubtedly excited by Blount and the run blocking of their young O-line, but Bill Belichick is smart enough to know that porous Bills (28th) and Colts (26th) run Ds are not great indicators for success against a top 10 front playing at home [no joke, In FF I would often pick up RBs off waivers just by virtue of the fact they were playing against Buffalo...and I'll let you know I'm league champion...lol].
This is the playoffs, where not losing the turnover battle is the #1 key to victory, so it would be foolish for either team not to try to establish the run right away. In my opinion, this is a little more important for the Patriots, because the "established formula" for beating the Broncos is long drawn out sustained drives, that eat the clock, wear out the defense, put Manning out of rhythm, and open up the PA...the Patriots must get the Broncos out of rhythm, because it's highly unlikely they can win a shootout without any serious receiving threats. The Patriots 2nd Key to victory is getting pressure on Manning as an alternative way to get Denver's high powered offense out of rhythm. Prior to the divisional round match up, where Manning was sacked ZERO times, the Chargers were the team that gave the Broncos' O-line the most problems, and that was in both regular season games. It may not have shown up on the sack count, but the pressure was constant and really adversely affected Manning. Whatever adjustments the Broncos coaching staff made to correct this worked perfectly, and it has to instill a lot of confidence in their ability. The Patriots have a formidable pass rush; Ninkovich is a stud and Chandler Jones is an emergent talent, but it's interior pressure that is the most effective against Manning. The #1 key holds especially true for the Broncos who had big issues with ball security earlier in the season. Aside from that the #2 key for the Broncos is plain and simple execution...don't kid yourself, the Broncos are indeed the more talented team but it seems like they have been their own worst enemy this season.
The Broncos may be Vegas favorites, but I can assure they don't feel that way. Although the Broncos are still the only team in the NFL that does not have a losing record against the Brady and Belichick Patriots, with the series tied at 6-6, the Patriots have had Denver's number as of late, winning in the last 4 meetings (the last three being at Foxboro.) Considering the devastating meltdown in week 12, the Patriots have every reason to feel confident and the Broncos have every reason to work their butts off in preparation...the Denver Broncos will be the ones playing like underdogs with a chip on their shoulder and the Patriots would be wise not to indulge in overconfidence.