The New England Patriots will have a hard time looking back at the film of their Week 12 victory over the Denver Broncos to find clues on how to win Sunday’s AFC Championship Game.
A lot has changed since these teams met in November. The Broncos have lost linebacker Von Miller, cornerback Chris Harris and defensive end Derek Wolfe but gained tight end Julius Thomas. The Patriots have lost tight end Rob Gronkowski and linebacker Brandon Spikes for the season, but they have regained health in the secondary, added defensive tackle Sealver Siliga, and running back LeGarrette Blount has been rushing like a maniac every week since.
The setting — and weather — will be different, too. November’s game was held at frigid and windy Gillette Stadium, while Sunday’s game will be played at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver, with temperatures expected in the high 50s with little wind. The Week 12 game was all about the run, but Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady should have no trouble passing in the postseason matchup.
The Patriots won the first meeting 34-31, but that does not mean everything went perfectly. After checking the film, here are some aspects of New England’s game the team should have no problem improving upon:
1. The running game, led by LeGarrette Blount
What happened in Week 12: Blount, Brady and Patriots running back Stevan Ridley fumbled in New England’s first three drives, completely changing the course of the game. Ridley and Blount were benched, and running backs Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen carried the load for the rest of the game.
Bolden ran 13 times for 58 yards, but 33 of those yards came on one carry. It was an OK performance for the Patriots’ running game (31 carries for 116 yards and one touchdown) but nothing like what they have accomplished lately. The offensive line was having a difficult time opening holes, but Bolden, who has played just 24 offensive snaps since Week 12, isn’t quite as explosive as Ridley or Blount.
What has changed: Blount has absolutely terrorized defenses in the past two weeks, with 48 carries for 355 yards with six touchdowns. Blount took just two snaps in Week 12 before taking a helmet-to-helmet shot and fumbling the ball. He did not return to the field.
Blount has appeared much more decisive in his last five games. That’s allowing him to run with more power, and since he’s hitting his holes faster, he has a better chance of breaking off a long run.
2. Stopping the Broncos’ running backs with help from Sealver Siliga
What happened in Week 12: The Patriots stayed in nickel (five defensive backs, four defensive linemen and two linebackers) the entire game because the Broncos kept three wide receivers on the field for all 90 snaps. Joe Vellano and Chris Jones played 160 of a total 180 snaps, and linebacker Dont’a Hightower was benched for the second half due to poor performance and injury.
It was a rough showing for the Patriots. Vellano and Jones were pushed around, and nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, who played just 14 snaps, didn’t fare any better. By the end of the 73-minute affair, the Broncos had run for 280 yards on 48 carries. Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno carried the ball 37 times for 224 yards. Denver had 5.8 yards per carry in the wind and cold, and that wasn’t bloated by any huge gains. The Broncos’ longest carries were 18 and 16 yards.
What has changed: A lot. Siliga now is starting at the nose next to Jones, and the Patriots’ run defense has been transformed. The Broncos know Siliga well — he was on their team during the 2011 and 2012 seasons (primarily on the practice squad) and for training camp in 2013. Denver fans might not believe Siliga can be such a difference-maker, nor should they. But he has been one.
Siliga is able to take on double teams, which Jones and Vellano could not, and he’s actually been a playmaker in the middle of the defense, recording three sacks and many run stops.
Hightower also is playing much better. He’s been the most consistent Patriots defender since Week 13. Hightower admitted he was trying to do too much after New England lost All-Pro linebacker Jerod Mayo for the season and now is back to “doing his job.” It’s worked out great for him and the Patriots’ defense.
3. Pressuring Peyton Manning
What happened in Week 12: The Patriots generated just 18 pressures on 42 drop backs (42.9 percent of passing downs) from Manning. Defensive end Chandler Jones was the only Patriot who sacked Manning, and he led the team with six total pressures. Even Jones’ sack wasn’t overly impressive. Jones and defensive end Rob Ninkovich got pressure, but Manning gave himself up.
New England got just one pressure from the interior line. Chris Jones had one hurry.
What has changed: Patriots rookie linebacker Jamie Collins was a force in the pass rush in Saturday’s divisional-round win. He had five (close to six) total pressures on nine pass-rushing snaps, including a sack and two quarterback hits.
Collins also contributed in coverage. The rookie played like a combination of Brian Urlacher and Aldon Smith against Indianapolis. He should see a lot of time on Thomas.
The Patriots had 21 total pressures on 46 drop backs from Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck on Saturday. The Patriots could do even better this week if Ninkovich can have a strong game against Broncos right tackle Orlando Franklin.