Friday, January 22, 2016

Playoff Preview: Patriots at Broncos

So the annual Brady/Manning game got pushed back a few months, and it’s this Sunday. Blame it on Brock Osweiler; the faux heir apparent who was good enough to beat the Pats in November, setting up Denver to host this game.

The Broncos won that game 30-24 in overtime. So the question is: has enough changed between then and now to expect a different outcome?

**Spoiler Alert**, plenty has changed, believe me. Read on to see if the Patriots can reverse the deficit on Sunday and go to their seventh Super Bowl under Bill Belichick.

1. Meet The New QB, Same As The Old QB

Peyton Manning isn’t quite the same old QB, but he is an upgrade over Brock Osweiler at this juncture. Manning has 25 playoff starts, Osweiler none. And for those who think Manning doesn’t have the arm strength to be effective, remember: both he and Brady are the best ever pre-snap.

Even if Peyton can’t throw it more than 20 yards, he can audible to the proper play to give his team a chance to win that play. And he can do that with great effectiveness for 65-80 plays a game. He might not win it with 40-yard bombs, but he’ll be better putting his team in the right position more often than Osweiler would have been.

If Osweiler had been good enough to keep his job, this game would be a Patriots blowout. Belichick is just too good at attacking the weaknesses of young quarterbacks. (Note: the one blip in that pattern is that QBs are 5-4 when their making his second, third, or fourth start -- that is how Osweiler won in November; it was his second start.)

Also consider that Manning overthrew long passes by 2-3 yards in week 17 of the regular season. But he only overthrew long passes by a yard or less in last week's playoff victory. If he gets his accuracy back for this game, it'll make things that much tougher.

2. Patriots Defensive Reinforcement

The one defensive player who couldn’t go for the Patriots in November was linebacker Jamie Collins. Regular readers of this blog know how much he means to the team. He will make it more difficult for the Broncos to complete short passes over the middle, which would force Manning to throw deeper or to the sideline, both of which are a problem for him at this point.

One additional reinforcement, hopefully, is a healthier Dont’a Hightower. He played a little over one-quarter of the November tilt. The Broncos rushed for an average of 2.9 yards per carry with Hightower on the field, and 8.0 ypc without him, so his importance can’t be overstated.

The team did lose Jerod Mayo this week. But he didn’t play very much (or very well) in the first Broncos game. In fact, his replacement that night, Jonathan Freeney, led the team with 12 tackles and had a sack of Osweiler.

3. Patriots Offensive Changes

Missing from the November game: receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. Patriots went 2-13 (15%) on third-down conversions in that game; but in games with Edelman, they were 52% on the season (including 50% last weekend). Also, Amendola wasn’t there to return punts, and rookie Chris Harper fumbled a punt to led to a Denver touchdown.

On the downside, the team lost running back LeGarrette Blount since the November tilt. And they have no running game to speak of at the moment; so it’ll all come down to Brady and the receivers. Which isn’t a bad place to be, especially when Edelman and Rob Gronkowski are on the field.

4. Denver Defensive Line Help

One important Denver player who missed the November game was defensive end/linebacker DeMarcus Ware. He brings his 7.5 sacks to the party, playing opposite Von Miller, who led the team with 11 on the year. In fact, the Broncos led the NFL with 52 sacks. And they’ll have their raucous crowd to disrupt the Patriots still-struggling offensive line.

This might be where the game is won or lost. If the crowd noise disrupts the Pats offensive line enough for the Broncos ends to get pressure on Brady, it could be a long day. It only takes pressure on a few plays to hurry the quarterback and have him risk a turnover or take an inopportune sack.

Denver is a tough place to play, not just because of the altitude, but because their team is designed to take advantage of the crowd noise. It’s similar to when Indianapolis had two defensive ends who could speed-rush with the best of them. Add the noise in the dome and it's nearly impossible for offensive linemen to get a good jump on the play.

5. Blunders/Officiating

In the first game, the Patriots muffed a punt, they missed several tackles behind the line of scrimmage that would have stopped big gains, and they botched clock management at the end of the half and the end of the game.

They were also on the wrong end of several questionable officials calls. Not that I’m blaming the referees for the loss; but it didn’t help.

It’s unlikely all that will go against the Patriots again. But on the road you never know for sure.

6. Quick Hits

A) Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is 1-4 in his last five games against Bill Belichick.

B) Denver is the only playoff team that had a negative turnover ratio in 2015 (-4 on the season).

C) The Patriots finished with a +7 turnover ratio, and they turned the ball over the least in the entire NFL (14 total for the year).

D) Brady and Manning have met in four previous AFC Championship Games. The home team won all four times.

E) Brady is 2-6 career in Denver.


The Patriots are too thin to sustain any injuries among these players: Tom Brady (obviously), Gronkowski, Edelman, Sebastian Vollmer, Collins, Hightower, Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty, Malcolm Butler, and Logan Ryan.

They have enough depth elsewhere to survive injuries. But if any of those listed players miss significant time on Sunday, the chances of a Patriots win drop significantly.

It’ll all come down to the Patriots stopping the Denver running game and the Broncos getting pressure on Brady. With Collins and Hightower playing, they can accomplish the former. And if Edelman and Gronkowski stay healthy, Brady can deliver the ball quickly enough to neutralize the latter. I think they will be healthy enough, so my guess is...

Patriots 31, Broncos 23.

Enjoy the game!

- Scott

PS. 1-0!

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