A decisive battle to prove who is the best team in the AFC happens this weekend on Sunday Night Football when the New England Patriots make their way to Sports Authority Field at Mile High to take on the Denver Broncos.
The Patriots currently hold a two game lead over the Broncos in the quest for the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs. A Denver win on Sunday would put them one game behind New England for the coveted seeding, and would give them the head-to-head tie breaker in the event both teams finish the regular season with the same record.
Quite simply, this is the biggest game for Denver all season and a win at home against New England significantly bolsters their chances at securing home field advantage this post-season. A loss renders obtaining that advantage impossible. It may only be the 11th game of the year for Denver, but the game certainly has the aura and make up of a playoff match up. Everything is on the line and the Broncos will need to play their best football of the year to dethrone the undefeated Patriots.
Can it be done? Absolutely — and here are some thoughts on how they can best accomplish that goal.
Who's Hot for New England
Quarterback Tom Brady: When is Tom Brady not hot? The former Michigan quarterback is having another fantastic season posting a stat line of 3,320 yards passing, 25 touchdowns and only 4 interceptions. His completion percentage of 66.7% is seventh best among NFL quarterbacks and passer rating of 107.4 is second only to Carson Palmer of the Arizona Cardinals.
As leader of their team, Brady has helped them soar to second in points scored and third in total yards offensively even with the myriad of injuries they have accumulated on that side of the ball. That sort of production along with his ability to carry the Patriots to an undefeated record thus far have him in the talks of earning NFL MVP honors.
I have never been a fan of Brady dating back to his days with the Wolverines, but I give credit where credit is due and there is no denying Brady's prowess as one of the top two signal callers in the NFL. At the age of 38 years old, Brady shows no signs of slowing down, but the Broncos defense will have to be in prime form to throw him out of his rhythm if they want to win on Sunday.
Alas, some circumstances surrounding the game may be beneficial to help slow down Tom Brady and the Patriots aerial assault. With snow expected for Sunday night's affair against New England, the Patriots may rely a bit more on running back LeGarrette Blount than usual. Additionally, wide receiver depth is a concern for them with Danny Amendola is expected to be out for the game and Keshawn Martin is listed as questionable.
Brady faces a tough challenge facing one of the league's best defense, but adversity is something he has overcame quite well during his Hall of Fame career. Denver needs to be creative with their defensive scheme and demonstrate they are capable of running multiple looks from the same shell and not give away any tendencies to Brady early on. They also need to hit him early and often to get him rattled in order to help surge the team to victory.
Who's Not Hot for New England
The Patriots Offensive Line: New England's offensive line has endured a series of injuries throughout the course of the season which has left Brady vulnerable on numerous occasions and slowed down their consistency in the running game. Nate Solder is done for the season with a torn triceps, center Brian Stork missed the first half of the year and Marcus Cannon has been plagued with foot injuries that have limited his effectiveness in games.
It is a situation that closely parallels our own in Denver, and one that has left the Patriots in a tough situation, often having to rotate offensive lineman (up to as many as four different combinations a game) in order to concoct a combination that works. After watching a few games this season, it seems that the group of Cannon, Stork, Sebastian Vollmer, Shaq Mason and Josh Kline has been the best they can offer and is the line-up I expect to be put on the field this Sunday against Denver.
The dreary situation in their offensive trenches is one that Denver needs to take full advantage of. The Broncos should bring heat off the edges and mix it up with blitzes from the linebackers and defensive backfield to fluster their struggling unit. If they accomplish this, their ability to win at home will increase significantly.
The Match Up to Watch
Denver's D versus Rob Gronkowski: My biggest match up to watch this weekend is how the Broncos defense will approach Rob Gronkowski. As mentioned earlier, their wide receiver corps is depleted, but Gronkowski has continued to endure success and has racked up 51 catches for 843 yards and 8 scores and remains one of the league's best threats offensively.
It will be interesting to see what Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips' has in store in regard to Gronkowski. My preliminary guess is that he will be shadowed often by cornerback Aqib Talib, who was used that way against Jimmy Graham and shut him down when he played with the Patriots. Talib has the size, length and speed to match up with Gronkowski wherever he goes on the field and given the injuries to the Patriots receivers, Denver can afford to use their other defensive backs on them and use on of their best players to guard Gronkowski for the majority of the game.
If Denver keeps Gronkowski in check, the Patriots will struggle to find ways to move the ball down field. Eliminate him from their passing attack and the path to victory becomes much clearer.
Folks, this is what it is all about. Sunday Night Football under the lights in Denver with the prospect of bitterly cold weather and snow makes for a magnificent, yet treacherous game atmosphere. Expect Denver to have a relatively conservative game plan with a focus on ball control and protecting Brock Osweiler, who is set to make his second career start this Sunday.
A healthy dose of C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman is a certainty, but don't be surprised if Denver takes a few shots down the field with play action passes if the running game is effective early on. Despite the Vegas odds having Denver as an underdog, this is a game I feel confident that they can win. Will it be a blowout? No, but a home field crowd along with other variable factors mentioned should be beneficial for Denver.
A late fourth quarter score rallies the Broncos back from a one point deficit and gives them a six point win. That's my prediction.
Denver 23, New England 17.