AVG. YPA (RNK)
AVG. YPA (RNK)
|10-0||Mile High Stadium, Denver, CO||8-2|
|1st AFC East||Spread: Patriots by 3||1st AFC West|
The Denver Broncos are home underdogs for the second time this season as the undefeated New England Patriots come to down. You might remember that the last time an undefeated team came into Denver as a favorite, the Broncos destroyed them.
This game could very well determine the eventual seeding arrangement in the AFC playoffs. Down two games to the Patriots, the Broncos must win this game to have any hope of stealing away home field advantage from the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots.
A loss and the Broncos simply have to beat the Cincinnati Bengals and they will have the tie breaker for the #2 seed in the AFC. Knowing how good the Patriots are at home, it would be a heck of a lot better for the Broncos to make it a little harder for them to coast to that home field advantage in the AFC.
Strength against weakness
Here are some of the bigger match-ups in this week's Sunday Night Football game between the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos that we'll need to keep an eye on.
Broncos pass rush vs Patriots offensive line
Tom Brady against the Broncos No Fly Zone is going to be strength against strength, so its on them to win their one-on-one battles more often than not. The key for the Broncos defense against the number one offense in the NFL is to harass and pressure Brady all game long. The Buffalo Bills proved this on Monday Night Football last week.
At times over the last two weeks, the Broncos pass rush has almost looked nonexistent. Now whether that is due to poor officiating and no-calls on holding doesn't matter. What matters is that the Broncos defensive line has got to get consistent pressure on Brady or its going to pose some significant problems for the Broncos in this game.
Like they did against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, the defensive line and blitzers must have their best game of the year. The good thing about the guys on this defense is that even when they are struggling, they find a way to come up big when they absolutely need to have a play. Von Miller did it in the game against the Chicago Bears with this strip/sack late in the fourth quarter.
Running the ball vs Patriots defense
This is a two-headed monster. First, the Broncos running back tandem of Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson must generate good yardage on first or second downs. That helps set up good, long drives that produce points. A successful running attack will open things up in the play-action pass and bootlegs that Gary Kubiak loves to run in this offense.
With Brock Osweiler under center, I think we saw how that helps open up running lanes as defenders must account for a legitimate bootleg threat and then you mix in the play-action and you have a running game that has at least one less defender to deal with when you do actually run the football. For example, the decisive touchdown drive against the Bears had two consecutive plays that defined what Kubiak wants to do with his play calling. First, after running the ball so well the defense began biting the run plays hard, so here comes the bootleg.
On the next play, the Bears defenders stayed honest to the bootleg and Ronnie Hillman ran his way for an 11 yard gain.
A few plays later with the Bears defense gassed and gashed, Osweiler threw a dart to Cody Latimer for the touchdown.
The reason Kubiak's offensive system is so successful is because its both simple and keeps the defense so off balance that play calls have an unusually high chance of success on any given set of downs. This was kind of what we have been expecting to see all season long. It was nice for a change.
However, there was one key component missing from Kubiak's system against the Bears which takes us to what Osweiler must do against this Patriots defense to bring home the win for the Broncos and help keep home field advantage in the AFC in doubt heading down the regular season home stretch.
Brock Osweiler vs Patriots secondary
The most important key to victory is for Brock Osweiler to stretch the field. Kubiak kept the kid gloves on Osweiler against the Chicago Bears with mostly short and intermediate pass options, but that isn't going to cut it against one of the best teams in football. The big play needs to return in this game. Via PFF, here is a snapshot of Osweiler's throws:
As you can see, Osweiler really worked the middle of the field and stayed away from the deep passes nearly entirely. It would be beyond awesome if Kubiak kept the kid gloves on in order to deny Bill Belichick the game tape on those stretch-the-field pass plays to a bare minimum. That would be some fairly adept coaching right there from Kubiak that belies his "only worried about this week" mantra.
The Broncos offense is actually built for the big play, which is why this season has been so frustrating. It's not that Peyton Manning hasn't been trying to get the big play, it's that his arm wouldn't get the ball there in time to get the big play. Osweiler might solve that problem - provided he is accurate. With Vernon Davis, Demaryius Thomas and now Emmanuel Sanders on the field, we could see some interesting plays designed to stretch the field for the big play potential. So many options, but both Kubiak and Osweiler have to have the courage to call the play and execute it. That is the big question mark right now with this only being Osweiler's second start.
The bottom line
The bottom line is that the Broncos offense must run the ball and get some big plays to beat the Patriots. This will keep the Patriots in catch-up mode and take them out of their game plan. From there, it's on the defense to get to Brady early and often without giving up the big running plays.
Brady and the Patriots are excellent in prime time games, so this isn't going to be a repeat of the blowout win over the Green Bay Packers. If the Broncos win this game, it's going to be a tough, hard fought one that may come down to the final minutes.
Fortunately, the Broncos defense is also used to protecting victory in the final minutes this year and they'll likely need to do it again in this one if all goes according to plan.