The New England Patriots will travel to Denver next weekend for the AFC Championship Game, with hopes of avenging their Week 12 loss to the Broncos.
The Patriots and Broncos will face off Sunday at 3:05 p.m. ET after Denver beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 23-16 in the divisional round of the playoffs and New England emerged victorious over the Kansas City Chiefs 27-20.
This matchup will be a little different, however.
Peyton Manning, not Brock Osweiler, will be the Broncos’ quarterback, and the Patriots will have receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, linebacker Dont’a Hightower and tight end Rob Gronkowski back and healthy. Jamie Collins, who injured his back Saturday against the Chiefs, also could play after missing the regular-season matchup.
The Patriots lost Hightower and Gronkowski to injuries during the game earlier this season before the Broncos won in overtime. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s receivers were Brandon LaFell, Keshawn Martin and Chris Harper (yikes) with Edelman and Amendola out with injuries.
To get prepared for Brady-Manning 17, let’s see how these teams matched up this season:
WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS
Patriots: 286.7 yards per game (fifth in the NFL)
Broncos: 199.6 yards allowed per game (first)
The rankings might not show it, but this is an incredibly even matchup. Brady lost Edelman, Amendola and Gronkowski for overlapping periods over the final seven weeks of the regular season, which dragged down the entire offense. With those three sharing the field Saturday against the Chiefs, Brady threw for 302 yards and two touchdowns with no turnovers.
The Broncos’ defense, featuring pass rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware and cornerbacks Aqib Talib, Chris Harris and Bradley Roby, is tough, but Brady threw for 280 yards and three scores when these teams matched up earlier this season, and Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger threw for 339 yards against Denver in the divisional round.
This matchup could decide the game. If Brady can move the ball against the Broncos as well as he did against the Chiefs, Denver probably won’t be able to keep up.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN
Patriots: 87.8 yards per game (30th)
Broncos: 83.6 yards allowed per game (third)
Should we just skip this one? We should just skip this one.
The Patriots won’t be running the ball on the Broncos, because they can’t, and there’s really no use in trying. They carried the ball 14 times for just 38 yards against the Chiefs. They had 39 yards on 16 carries in Week 12 against the Broncos.
Steven Jackson was a solid pickup, but the Patriots’ offensive line isn’t opening enough holes to make him effective. Broncos defensive linemen Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe don’t make it easy to move the ball on the ground, either.
WHEN THE BRONCOS PASS
Patriots: 240.7 yards allowed per game (16th)
Broncos: 248.1 yards per game (14th)
This will be yet another close matchup. Manning threw for just 222 yards against a Steelers secondary that is much worse than the Patriots’, which features Devin McCourty at free safety, Patrick Chung covering tight ends and Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and Justin Coleman at cornerback.
Ryan (with help from McCourty) took on Demaryius Thomas in Week 12 and shut him down to the tune of one catch on 13 targets for 36 yards, while Butler struggled against Emmanuel Sanders, who had six receptions for 113 yards with Osweiler at the helm.
It might be too much to ask Ryan to dominate Thomas again, but the Patriots’ pass defense should fare well against Manning. Their pass rush could only sack Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith once, but putting his mobility up to Manning’s would be like comparing a gazelle to a giraffe with three knee sprains.
WHEN THE BRONCOS RUN
Patriots: 98.8 yards allowed per game (ninth)
Broncos: 107.4 yards per game (17th)
The Patriots shut down the Broncos’ ground game in Week 12 until Hightower sprained his knee in the second quarter and all hell broke loose. Hightower wasn’t 100 percent against the Chiefs, and then Collins and Jerod Mayo suffered injuries, leaving the Patriots with Jonathan Freeny, Darius Fleming and Dekoda Watson as run stoppers.
It didn’t appear as though Hightower, Collins or Mayo’s injuries were serious, but we’ll find out this week if they can go in practice and suit up in the game. They’ll be key for the Patriots to stop C.J. Anderson, Ronnie Hillman and the Broncos’ ground game, which ran for 179 yards on 32 carries with three touchdowns in the previous meeting this season.
Thumbnail photo via Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY Sports Images