Friday, January 13, 2012

Patriots vs. Broncos Preview

Last year I wrote that two weeks between games felt like too long.  Not this year; I'm barely getting this preview out before the game.  Another day and I'd have to pre-date the post to make it a preview at all.

So it's Patriots vs. Broncos for the right to go to the AFC Championship game.  As is my practice, I'll look back at the most recent game between the two teams and determine if enough changed in the interim to alter the outcome.  Shouldn't be too hard this time; the Patriots won 41-23 in a game played less than a month ago.

That game went Denver's way early and the Patriots way after that.  The Broncos led 16-7 after 17 minutes, but the Patriots roared back, turning turnovers and defensive adjustments into a 34-7 rout the rest of the way.

The Broncos ran for 167 yards in the first quarter.  But after the Patriots adjusted, they had only 85 in the rest of the game.  The Pats also forced two turnovers (and got one gift on a muffed punt), and the defense gave quarterback Tim Tebow only short passes.  Tebow had had just two completions that traveled over 20 yards in the air, as compared to at least five in last week's playoff win.

Meanwhile, the Patriots offense started very slowly in December, but they cashed in all three turnovers.  They they went no-huddle and used some nice play design (and some blown coverages) to sustain long drives and score touchdowns.  The Broncos slowed down Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski; but that left Aaron Hernandez to gash them for 129 yards (and 1 touchdown) on 9 receptions.

The Patriots clearly weren't ready to stop all the dimensions that Tebow brings to the game, and it took them a quarter to figure out how.  And the Broncos clearly were ready to stop the Patriots main two receivers, but they couldn't stop the third (Hernandez).

So what has changed between 12/18/2011 and 1/14/2012?  Has enough changed to give Denver a chance of turning around the final score?  Here goes:

1.  The Venue

The last game took place in Denver, a notoriously loud stadium that sits one mile above sea level. Many teams have trouble winning there, including the Patriots, who have a terrible record against the Broncos, especially in Mile High.

The teams will contest this game in Foxboro, a notoriously quiet stadium with artificial turf (as opposed to grass at Mile High). The faster track and surer footing will give the Patriots passing game an advantage. But Broncos runners will have surer footing, too, and that could be to their advantage.

There is also a perceived advantage to athletes who train at altitude. However, that will likely be offset by the short week for Denver (they played on Sunday and play again on Saturday) and the long rest the Patriots had during the bye week.

Not much there either way to turn things around; in fact, with the difficulty running offense on the road, it's probably an advantage for the Patriots.

2.  Health

Patriots who will play Saturday who did not play in the first game: Patrick Chung, Brandon Spikes, Sebastian Vollmer, and Deion Branch. You can't overstate Chung's importance to the secondary; they are so thin at safety. Spikes is overrated (IMO), but the team plays better against the run with him in there, so his return will help.

Branch probably won't make much difference unless the Broncos somehow shut down all three main receivers. But Vollmer's return allows them to use tackle Nate Solder as an extra lineman/tight end, and that should slow down the Denver outside pass rush.

On the other side, Broncos safety Brian Dawkins missed the first game, and he looks questionable for Saturday. But if he can play, he could help neutralize the Patriots tight ends -- he's a veteran with great toughness and coverage skills. Unfortunately, they might have lost Eric Decker, their leading receiver this year. Decker suffered a knee injury early in the second quarter last week, and is reportedly out of the game this Saturday.

Most of this is advantage New England, although a Dawkins return is a wild card. He helped stop them years ago in the Super Bowl against the Eagles, and if he can cause problems, the Denver secondary is good enough to convert that into turnovers.

3. Adjustments

This plays to New England's favor for sure. Once they made their adjustments in the prior game, the Broncos had no answers on offense or defense. So even if the Denver braintrust comes up with a good game plan, the Patriots adjust as well as any team in the NFL, and they should be able to make the in-game changes this week, too.

The Broncos don't have as much to adjust with. Their running game is good, but it probably won't win the game without great play from the quarterback. And the quarterback is limited, which gives the Patriots less to adjust to.
The Pats might face an initial onslaught, but if they survive the emotional Broncos, they will adjust better and turn the game in their favor.

4. Confidence

After the win last week, Denver has to be brimming with confidence. Unfortunately, they can't play the Steelers at home again, otherwise they'd probably win again. Pittsburgh is poor at adjustments, they were beaten up so they couldn't substitute to keep players fresh in the altitude, and their quarterback was injured so he couldn't extend plays or throw on the run.

Confidence is great, and Denver certainly shouldn't feel *bad* about themselves after last week. But the last game was a perfect storm for the Broncos and they still needed overtime to win.

5. Quick Hits:

A) Patriots are now 16-4 after a bye week under Bill Belichick, but 0-1 this year (trivia question: can you name the team they lost to... answer below).

B) The Patriots had four players this year with more catches and more yards than Denver's top receiver. Wes Welker (122 for 1,569), Rob Gronkowski (90 for 1,327), Aaron Hernandez (79 for 910), and Deion Branch (51 for 910) all out-performed Denver's Eric Decker (44 for 612).

C) The Patriots have never beaten the Broncos in the playoffs (0-2).

D) Tim Tebow really is making everyone forget Kyle Orton. Even the NFL's official web site omits Orton from Denver's passing stats. Don't believe me, here's proof (or you can check yourself at


It shouldn't be close. The Patriots won't let Tebow beat them deep, and he hasn't shown the ability to sustain drives with short passes and score points. The Broncos defense is beaten up some -- in addition to the Dawkins injury, pass rushers Von Miller (thumb) and Elvis Dumervil (ankle) are limited. Add to that the fact that Vollmer absolutely *schooled* Dumervil in their only regular season meeting, and it could be a tough day for the Denver defense.

Additionally, the Patriots defense is healthy again, and moving Devin McCourty to safety solidified play against the deep pass. It won't help Denver that Decker is likely to be out. And the 34-7 score over the last three quarters looks more like preview than past.

Keep the faith,

- Scott


PPS. Trivia Answer: The Patriots lost 25-17 to the Steelers after their regular season bye in 2011.

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