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Patriots-Broncos preview: AFC Championship Game rematch with Pats Pulpit

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The AFC Championship is on the line. Manning vs Brady. Denver vs New England. I spoke with Richard Hill from patspulpit.com to get an inside look on our opponents for this playoff match up.

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1) Our regular season game seems so long ago...same place with some different faces. What are the key differences in this match up that make the Pats fans confident that their team will come away with a different outcome?

ell if you go through the Patriots roster and ask yourself, "who are the most important non-Tom Brady players on the roster?" you'd come up with the players that were out or injured against the Broncos in the regular season.

On the offensive side of the ball, Julian Edelman (team's leading target) and Danny Amendola (team's slot receiver) were out with injuries, and Rob Gronkowski (team's best target) was injured late in the game. All three should be back on the field and closer to 100% than they've been since week 9 of the regular season.

On the defensive side of the ball, linebackers have always been the core of any Bill Belichick defense and New England didn't have Jamie Collins due to an illness and Dont'a Hightower went out before the half. The Broncos averaged 2.9 yards per carry (YPC) on the ground when Hightower was in the game, but that ballooned to 8.0 YPC when Hightower was injured.

If the Patriots can stay healthier this game, then the team could revert back to the level of its undefeated counterpart earlier in the season.

2) No one seems to pay much attention to New England's defense given the popularity of some of the big personalities of your offense. Denver's going to have their hands full with this defense, though. What is it about your defense that makes them so sneaky good?

The defense really flies under the radar because there are no really big names. Players like Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower, and Devin McCourty are all really good players, but if you ask who the top pass rushers or linebackers or safeties are, these players wouldn't crack the list.

What makes this defense good is that nearly every position has (or at least had) a third player of starting quality. Jones rotates with Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard at defensive tackle. Collins and Hightower were joined by Jerod Mayo, until his injury last week forced him to the injured reserve. McCourty plays with Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon.

And speaking of forgetting names, I actually forgot to put Chung is that first group of players that fly under the radar. The Patriots have held opposing tight ends to the fewest yards per reception, thanks to Chung's coverage.

The depth is important because injuries are inevitable. Defensive tackle Dominique Easley went down with an injury, but the Patriots had depth with Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, and Akiem Hicks. Cornerback Tarell Brown went down and Logan Ryan stepped up.

So while the top end might not be as good as the remaining three other teams in the playoffs, their depth could go toe-to-toe with any other roster.

3) One player that I think is a pretty big deal that was missing from our earlier match-up was Julian Edelman. With him back in the lineup, how much better is the offense and why?

From weeks 1 through 9, with Julian Edelman in the offense, the Patriots scored 3.30 points per drive (PPD). From weeks 10 through 17, with Edelman sidelined with a foot injury, the Patriots scored an anemic 1.84 PPD. New England bounced back to 3.38 PPD against the Chiefs with Edelman back in the line-up.

With Edelman, the Patriots scored 3.30 points per drive. Without Edelman, they scored 1.84

His impact is extremely evident when you look at third and fourth downs; the Patriots dropped from a 49% to 36% conversion rate when Edelman was out, and bounced back to 50% upon his return against the Chiefs.

Edelman is not only a good receiver in his own right, but he also allows the Patriots offense to operate at a speed that compensates for the weak offensive line. Edelman can generally get open, but, even if he can't, Danny Amendola can definitely shake free from the third cornerback on most rosters. When Edelman is out, Amendola is unable to shake free from the top cornerback that results from the domino effect.

4) What do you see the offensive line doing to slow down the pass rush of the Broncos?

The Patriots offensive line isn't good, but Edelman's return will allow the offense to spread passes out in under two seconds. Defensive fronts typically handle the quick passing games with two types of reactions:

I) They act like the Bills, get frustrated, and then pout for the rest of the game.

II) The defensive coordinator adjusts and rushes fewer since they're not getting home, and then drops eight into coverage.

Either way, the pass rush is less effective and Tom Brady gets a few more milliseconds in the pocket. Whether that helped the Patriots against the Chiefs, or Kansas City not having pass rusher Justin Houston on hand, the New England offensive line is coming off its best game all season.

5) In your opinion, what are the keys to the game for a NE victory? Prediction?

1) Slow the Broncos rushing attack. Kubiak has had historical success running the ball against the Patriots, but the Broncos backs are the clear engine for the Denver offense. Reduce their impact and the Broncos will struggle to sustain drives.

2) Don't give Peyton Manning the middle of the field. This was where the Packers failed; Peyton doesn't have the arm strength to win on the sidelines with anything other than comeback timing routes. He can still effectively manage the middle of the field, though, so the Patriots have to consciously remove his easy throws from the playbook.

3) Create mismatches for Julian Edelman. If Chris Harris is anything less than 100%, the Patriots have an advantage with Edelman as he splits his snaps inside and out on the offensive formations. Edelman historically dominates against Broncos (12.0 targets, 9.3 recs, 96.0 yards, 1.3 TDs over prior three games), so any advantage will be magnified.

If the Patriots do any two of the above three goals, they'll win the game.