AFC Championship Preview: New England at Denver

In a rematch from Week 12, the Denver Broncos host the New England Patriots in what is being billed as Brady-Manning XVII – possibly the final competition between two all-time great quarterbacks. Aidan Curran has an AFC Championship preview.

Peyton Manning, having reclaimed the starting quarterback position from Brock Osweiler, managed the Broncos’ to victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round last weekend by a score of 23-16. In the other AFC tilt, Brady and the New England offense – thanks in large part to the return of wide receiver Julian Edelman – flashed a return to form of that had fueled the Patriots to a 10-0 start to the regular season, cutting through the Kansas City Chiefs defense like a knife through hot butter on their way to a 27-20 victory.

Yet despite all the media hype, it’s not Brady or Manning that are going to determine the outcome of this game.

Unlike Week 12, this Sunday, New England will return four key players absent from the first match-up: Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. Against Denver, the Patriots linebacking corps consisted of Jonathan Freeny, Darius Fleming, and Jerod Mayo ‒ a steep decline from Collins and Hightower. On offense, Edelman presents a quality mismatch that Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels can exploit, as his short-area burst and quickness fuel the quick passing attack that New England employed so successfully early this season.

For Denver, All-Pro cornerback Chris Harris Jr. is dealing with a shoulder injury that will either keep him out or limit his effectiveness. The trickle down effect through the depth-chart could be significant, with second-year cornerback Bradley Roby potentially forced to cover slot receivers, something he has struggled to do so far in his career. Also, return man Omar Bolden was declared out for the season after last weekend’s game after he suffered a partial MCL tear while returning a punt.

Things will be different for both teams this time around and, with New England receiving an injection of star talent, the Broncos will need to raise their game if they want to advance to their eighth Super Bowl in franchise history.

It will be interesting to see if Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will adjust his defensive scheme on Sunday as he did against the Steelers, when he used much more zone coverage than usual. With Edelman and Amendola back and an at least reasonably healthy Rob Gronkowski, Denver would be ill-advised to bring more than four rushers. In Week 12, the Broncos were mostly in nickel personnel, playing man coverage with some zone mixed in only on occasion.

On the other side of the ball, New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia had his defense operate primarily in a Cover 1 coverage scheme in Denver, showing a 5-2 alignment up front for the most part. Denver ran a lot of plays with three-wide receiver sets (11 personnel), an effective strategy to keep safeties out of the box for running backs C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman. The duo gashed New England’s run defense for a combined 172 yards on 19 carries in Week 12.

One key for New England on Sunday will be stopping Denver’s run game. With Collins and Hightower playing, expect the Patriots run defense to be much more disciplined in terms of run fits and gap discipline, areas in which Fleming and Freeny struggled in Week 12.

Here, Alan Branch and Malcom Brown get double teamed, creating a huge hole in the middle of the line for Anderson to run through:

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Freeny is responsible for filling the gap here, as Mayo works to fill the B gap. However, Freeny is late to recognize the play and, as a result, Anderson gains nine yards before Freeny can tackle him.

On Anderson’s game-winning touchdown in overtime in Week 12, Denver perfectly executed a toss sweep featuring great blocking by both the offensive line and the wide receivers:

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Freeny is easily handled by the tight end while the safety is blocked by the wideout, which allows Denver’s center and left tackle to swing out and pave the way for Anderson to scamper down the sideline and into the end zone untouched. 

Assuming New England will focus on stopping the run, it will be up to Manning to lead his team to victory, suspect arm and all. Against Pittsburgh, Manning looked as healthy as he’s been all year, yet lacked velocity on some throws. Manning also had trouble with touch on his downfield passes, overthrowing receivers multiple times, as with this errant throw to Demaryius Thomas where the wideout is open, but the ball sails up and away, over the head of the receiver:

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Manning operated much more under center in his return, which alters the play-calling options for Gary Kubiak. In Week 12, Osweiler executed bootlegs and even a designed QB run, which don’t figure to be in the game plan this time. Pressuring Manning up the middle will, as it always has been, the key. Collins and Hightower excel at sugaring the A gap, which may have Manning checking to run plays often.

New England, for their part, played mostly man coverage in Week 12 with success, so it would make sense for them to do the same in the rematch. Cornerback Logan Ryan shut down Demaryius Thomas for much of the game, and Malcolm Butler limited Emmanuel Sanders’s production.

At the end of the fourth quarter, Thomas and Sanders both had impressive, if not lucky, catches that helped Denver march down the field and score the go-ahead touchdown on an Andre Caldwell four-yard reception. Thomas’s reception came on a deep curl route in which he leapt over Ryan to high-point the ball and snatch it away from the outstretched hands of the cornerback to make the 36-yard catch. Sanders then had a 39-yard reception in which he got behind Butler on a go route and made the catch to bring Denver to the New England four-yard line to set up an Andre Caldwell touchdown. It will be important for Butler and Ryan to limit Thomas and Sanders again in order to free up a defender to put in the box to help defend against the run.

Hightower and Collins should also help against the passing game, where Freeny and Fleming were picked on by Brock Osweiler in Week 12. On this play, Fleming starts at the line of scrimmage, but drops back into a hook zone at the snap.

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He allows Owen Daniels, running a deep crossing route, to get behind him and Osweiler completes the pass for an 11-yard gain.

With Hightower, or as Manning called him the “quarterback of their defense,” back,  the chess match at the line against Manning, whose pre-snap diagnosis of a defense’s scheme is second-to-none, will be a crucial element to the game.

When New England Has The Ball

Much as in New England’s divisional round game against the Chiefs, the offensive line will need to keep Tom Brady clean if the offense is to operate efficiently. They got the job done against Kansas City (no sacks allowed and just one QB hit) and will need to replicate that performance on Sunday. With Edelman and Amendola back, New England’s quick passing game will shorten the time that edge rushers DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller have to get to the quarterback.

In Week 12, the offensive line had a few mishaps versus the Broncos defensive line, like Derek Wolfe’s sack of Brady, but also handled them well in the fourth quarter, when Denver used a fair number of stunts to try and generate pressure: 

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Denver rushes three defensive linemen here, with Wolfe being double-teamed by right guard Josh Kline and right tackle Marcus Cannon. Wolfe explodes off the line of scrimmage and overpowers Kline, shoving him to the ground and getting to Brady quickly for the sack.

With Denver possessing homefield advantage, it’s tough to pick against the home team. But with New England finally healthy – and with Bill Belichick being given a second chance against a team he has already faced this season – count on New England making the necessary adjustments against Denver’s run game and finding a way to put up enough points against the Denver defense to book their trip to Santa Clara, California for Super Bowl 50.

Follow Aidan on Twitter @ARCurran_28.

Aidan Curran has written about whether Malcolm Butler is for real, the Patriots versatile defensive line and options at offensive tackle, as well as Rex Ryan’s blitzing ways.

All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.

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