Ranking The Broncos-Patriots Positional Battles
By Daniel Calzone
Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve seen this one before. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will be matching up with each other for the 15th time all-time and the fourth time in the playoffs when they take the field on Sunday. So whom would you rather have under center in this situation? Do you want the guy who threw 55 TD passes this season (Manning) or the guy who has been to five Super Bowls (Brady)? For me, the clear-cut answer is Brady. If you need a win in a pressure-packed playoff game, it is hard to bet against Brady. The man has proved he can get it done when it matters most, and his career record versus Peyton (10-4) speaks for itself. This game is bigger than just one position, though. Although quarterbacks are the most important players on the field, they are not the only players on the field. Teams win championships!
If you were to put these two teams’ running games up against each another midway through this season, I would have told you that the Denver Broncos had the better rushing attack. Now, I am not sure this is as clear as it once was. The New England Patriots are coming off a 38- carry, 218-yard and six rushing TD performance against the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round. Those stats are dominating, staggering and thoroughly impressive. That being said, it’s one game, against a less-than-stellar defense. Still, if you look closely at the numbers, the Pats had the more effective rushing attack in the regular season as well. The Pats ran for 2,065 yards on 4.4 yards per carry in relation to Denver, which ran for only 1,873 yards on 4.1 yards per carry. I give LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen the very slight edge over Montee Ball and Knowshon Moreno. This is extremely close, but what have you done for me lately? Six rushing TDs in a playoff game is insane, advantage Pats.
This is where the Broncos hold their biggest advantage over not just the Patriots, but also the entire National Football League. One of the greatest receiving corps in recent memory is what has helped launch Manning and this passing attack to record-setting levels this season. A lack of options in the New England passing game has been an area of hot debate all season long, and the debate began all the way back in the offseason when New England let Wes Welker walk. As you know, Welker will be lining up against his former team in hopes that he, Eric Decker, DeMaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas can help lead this offense and drive the Broncos into the Super Bowl. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are solid options, but without Rob Gronkowski it isn’t close, advantage Denver.
The Broncos’ pass-blocking dominance has to be the single most underrated aspect of their amazing 2013 season. They boasted an NFL-best 20 sacks allowed. To offer some perspective, the Pats allowed 40 sacks this season, which was good for ninth-best in the NFL. Both lines are extremely good, but you could argue Denver has one of the best lines in the game. Some of that low sack rate has to be attributed to Manning’s ability to get rid of the ball quickly, but it’s not like Brady doesn’t get the ball out of his hand quickly, too. The Patriots’ run blocking has been better than Denver’s this season, but not by too much. The disparity in sacks allowed is ultimately what makes Denver’s line better than New England’s. Both lines are solid, but the slight edge goes to the home team.
It isn’t all about offense. These two teams may be best known for their ability to put up points, but both will need to make big-time stops on defense in order to win this game. The Patriots had the fifth-most sacks in the NFL this season, and a lot of that has to be because of this line’s ability to generate a pass rush. Chandler Jones had a great season nabbing a team-leading 11.5 sacks, and Rob Ninkovich was solid with eight sacks. The Pats have done a nice job replacing Vince Wilfork at nose tackle, rotating Tommy Kelly and Chris Jones as the D-line’s anchors. However, the Broncos’ D-line has been an underrated cast this season as the combination of Malik Jackson, Shaun Phillips, Robert Ayers and Wolfe combined for 25.5 sacks. I give this one to the Pats by a smidge.
The Broncos welcomed Von Miller back in Week 7 with open arms, only to lose him again right before they needed him the most -- in the playoffs. That being said, I do think these Broncos linebackers are better than advertised. I have always been a fan of Wesley Woodyard as a solid middle linebacker, and Danny Trevathan plays hard each and every play. But the fact of the matter is, a combined 3.5 sacks out of the two isn’t going to cut it as far as a linebacker pass rush is concerned. Without Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes, the New England linebacking corps is just not the same. Spikes is a monster in the run game, and losing him late in the season was a huge blow to this defense. Linebacker is a weakness for both teams, but Denver gets the slight nod here.
Let’s be clear, the loss of Chris Harris is a major blow to this Denver defense, no doubt about it. He has been solid all season, and losing a starting matchup corner is a blow to any team at any time. Harris played more snaps (1,042) than any other player on the Broncos’ defense this season. Champ Bailey is a consistently solid veteran, but I fear the Broncos won’t like the results generated by Harris’ replacements. Quentin Jammer will take over for Harris, and although he used to be a solid DB for San Diego in his prime, he just isn’t at that level any more. Aqib Talib is a majorly talented corner in the Pats’ secondary, and Alfonzo Dennard and Devin McCourty complement him nicely and make for a very solid cover unit.
A special teams blunder cost the Broncos the game the first time these two teams met this season. I don’t see that happening again. Stephen Gostkowski is a good kicker, but Matt Prater is better. Prater broke the longest field-goal record this season when he connected on a 64-yarder right before halftime in a Week 14 win over the Tennessee Titans. He has crazy range in the altitude in Denver, and his ability to consistently hit long field goals is what separates his leg from most other kickers in the game today. As far as the return game is concerned, I think Denver has the edge. Trindon Holiday has had an extremely explosive season, averaging 27.7 yards per kick return, good for sixth-best in the NFL.
This isn’t the first time Bill Belichick and John Fox have crossed paths in the playoffs. These two coaches squared off in Super Bowl XXXVIII 10 years ago when Fox was leading the Carolina Panthers. (Crazy to think that was a decade ago!) The Patriots defeated the Panthers in that Super Bowl, 32-29, thanks to a game-winning field goal by Adam Vinatieri. Fox has had a roller-coaster ride of a season. En route to coaching the highest-scoring offense in NFL history, Fox missed a handful of games when he required aortic valve replacement surgery in early November. The feel-good story is in favor of Fox, but Belichick is the better coach. This guy consistently pumps out original, effective game plans tailored to his specific opponent each and every week. His schemes are world class, and there is no arguing his place among the all-time greats in coaching history. (And the guy has three wins in five career Super Bowl appearances.)
Patriots 5, Broncos 4
This could be the last time we see Manning and Brady do battle in a playoff game. Will Brady continue his dominance against Manning? Can Manning overcome his playoff woes? Will he cap his record-setting season with a Super Bowl trip? I have a feeling this could a high-scoring contest, and the type of game where the team that has the ball last wins. Despite Manning’s and Brady’s many battles on the gridiron, this might just be the most anticipated matchup of their storied rivalry. The pressure is on Manning, who needs a major playoff win over Brady to strengthen his legacy.