The AFC Championship Game should be coming to Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
It took a muffed punt, a blown 21-7 lead and C.J. Anderson’s touchdown run in overtime for the New England Patriots to fall to the Denver Broncos in Week 12. That loss gave the Broncos the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, and it’s why the Patriots had to travel west with Super Bowl hopes on the line.
The Patriots have the chance to prove home-field advantage and seeding don’t matter Sunday as they attempt to avenge their regular-season loss to the Broncos. This game should be much different. The Patriots were without linebacker Jamie Collins and wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola due to injuries. They lost linebacker Dont’a Hightower in the second quarter and tight end Rob Gronkowski in the fourth quarter. All five players are back and healthy, which could mean bad news for Denver.
The Broncos, on the other hand, now are starting quarterback Peyton Manning over Brock Osweiler, and they have pass rusher Demarcus Ware back on the field. Is that enough to neutralize the Patriots’ advantage? We’ll see.
Check out what the Patriots have to do to ensure victory:
LIMIT DEMARYIUS THOMAS
The Patriots, and most notably cornerback Logan Ryan, did a fantastic job of limiting wide receiver Demaryius Thomas in Week 12. Thomas had just one catch for 36 yards on 13 targets.
It’s unlikely Manning will be that inefficient throwing to his No. 1 target, but the Broncos need productive games out of Thomas and fellow wideout Emmanuel Sanders to keep up with the Patriots on the score board.
Ryan, with help from safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon, likely will shadow Thomas, while No. 1 cornerback Malcolm Butler should cover Sanders. Butler allowed four catches on seven targets for 85 yards in the Patriots’ previous matchup with the Broncos.
PREVENT BIG RUNNING PLAYS
The 30-24 Week 12 loss started to get away from the Patriots when Hightower went down with a knee injury, at which point New England began allowing big plays in the ground game. The Patriots allowed just 2.8 yards per carry before Hightower’s injury and 8.3 after.
After Hightower went down, the Patriots allowed 11-, 15-, 20- and 48-yard gains to Anderson. They also let up a 19-yard run to Ronnie Hillman.
The Patriots historically have had difficulty with Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak’s zone rushing scheme. Collins also was out in Week 12, and now he and Hightower are healthy, so New England has to hope their starting linebackers will help limit the Broncos’ at-times dangerous rushing attack.
CLOSE OUT GAME OFFENSIVELY
The Patriots gave up a 21-7 lead in their Week 12 loss, and one of their issues was that they couldn’t close out the game. New England had three three-and-outs in their final five drives, including overtime.
Here’s the issue, though: The Patriots still can’t run the ball. In fact, now that LeGarrette Blount is on injured reserve, they’re even worse. They have just 171 rushing yards on 63 carries in their last three games. Steven Jackson is running OK, but the Patriots’ offensive line can’t open up holes.
The Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady will need to rely on their short-passing game if their rushing attack continues to falter. That means putting added pressure on Edelman, Amendola and Gronkowski.
The Patriots are only outscoring opponents 136 to 124 in the fourth quarter and overtime this season despite outpacing opponents 492 to 335 overall.
The fourth quarter has been an issue for the Patriots most of the season, and getting stops defensively and extending drives on offense will be key in beating the Broncos.
Thumbnail photo via Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY Sports Images
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