Patriots-Broncos Film Review: Why AFC Championship Rematch Will Be Different

The Denver Broncos’ last impression of the New England Patriots’ offense isn’t a very positive one.

It would be wise for the Broncos to mostly ignore the Patriots’ offensive performance in that Week 12 matchup, though, while preparing for Sunday’s AFC Championship Game.

The Patriots went into that 30-24 regular season loss to the Broncos without receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, leaving Brandon LaFell, Keshawn Martin and Chris Harper as their only wideouts. By the time New England went to overtime, tight end Rob Gronkowski also was out of the offense after appearing to suffer a catastrophic knee injury.

The Patriots led 21-7 in the fourth quarter and actually were able to move the ball fairly well through the air early in the game even without Edelman and Amendola. Yet they never fully recovered from a muffed punt in the fourth quarter and let up 17 unanswered points before tying up the game with an impressive five-play, 51-yard drive at the end of the fourth quarter.

Then it got ugly.

Here were the Patriots’ three offensive plays, in which they lost seven yards, in overtime:

Patriots weapons: RB James White, RB Brandon Bolden, LaFell, Martin, TE Scott Chandler

— Brady released the ball quickly over the middle, but LaFell was draped in coverage by Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib. LaFell wasn’t open, nor were any other Patriots receivers.

Patriots weapons: White, LaFell, Martin, Chandler, TE Asante Cleveland

— With no one even close to being open again and pressure bearing down, Brady had to eat the sack on second and 10.

Patriots weapons: White, Bolden, LaFell, Martin, Chandler

— Bolden was open out of the backfield, but it’s unlikely he could have picked up a first down on third and 17. The other Patriots receivers couldn’t find open spaces in the Broncos’ zone coverage, and Brady was wrapped up before throwing the ball away.

The Patriots had to punt, and their defense couldn’t hold, letting up the game-winning touchdown. Down went their undefeated season.

Now let’s compare this to the Patriots’ offense against the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round of the playoffs, when everything is firing on all cylinders. The Patriots used Edelman, Amendola, LaFell, Gronkowski and White for all five plays of this third-quarter scoring drive.

— Brady had his choice of Edelman (slot), Amendola (deep seam) and Gronkowski (split out right), all of whom were open. He hit Gronkowski, who beat safety Tyvon Branch, over the middle for 18 yards.

— The Chiefs bit on the play fake, freeing up the outside edge for Edelman on the end-around. Edelman dove through Gronkowski and two Chiefs defenders for the first down on an 11-yard gain.

— Brady had Amendola (bottom slot) and White open, but he trusted Edelman on a back-shoulder throw to the left sideline. The perfect throw and catch went for 14 yards over Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith.

— The Chiefs were manned up, completely disrespecting the run game, so Brady knew he would have White open in the flat for another easy first down and 10 yards. White also deserves credit for not going down at first contact.

— Brady froze All-Pro safety Eric Berry with a pump fake on Gronkowski’s stop-and-go route. Gronkowski, who found himself wide open with an impressive route, took a big hit but holds on for the touchdown.

So, that’s what the Broncos have to work against this week. Good luck, Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.

Gronkowski had six receptions for 88 yards with a touchdown before going down with the knee injury in Week 12, and he should have a similar or better stat line Sunday against the Broncos. The Broncos likely will key in on Gronk early in the game, but they can only double him up for so long because the Patriots can beat them with Edelman, Amendola or White left 1-on-1.

Broncos cornerback Chris Harris is banged up with a shoulder injury, so it could be difficult for Denver to properly cover Edelman and Amendola. Harris, who’s smaller and shiftier than Talib, is a better matchup for the undersized receivers.

The Broncos also could have a tough time pressuring Brady, since he’s consistently able to get rid of the ball in around 2.1 seconds when Edelman and Gronkowski are together in the offense.

The Patriots likely won’t attempt to run the ball often against the Broncos, which could become a problem. The Broncos did a nice job of speeding up the game by running the ball on extended drives in Week 12. The Patriots should be able to get out to an early lead, but without the ability to run the ball, they could allow the Broncos to mount a comeback.

Overall, however, the Patriots’ offense should be in much, much better shape in their rematch with the Broncos.

Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images

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