It’s amazing how much can change in eight short weeks.
When the Patriots and Denver Broncos squared off in Week 12 of the regular season, there still was some uncertainty over how much wide receiver Julian Edelman added to New England’s offense. It became apparent over the last six weeks of the Patriots’ season, though, when they went 2-4 and struggled offensively without their top wideout. They then bounced back Saturday when Edelman returned from his foot injury, beating the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round of the playoffs.
The Patriots also were missing receiver Danny Amendola and linebacker Jamie Collins in that earlier matchup against the Broncos, and tight end Rob Gronkowski and linebacker Dont’a Hightower were lost during the game. All four players should be active Sunday, though, when the Patriots travel to Denver to face Broncos in the AFC Championship Game.
The Broncos had gone to quarterback Brock Osweiler and since have switched back to Peyton Manning. They also didn’t have pass rusher DeMarcus Ware in Week 12, but cornerback Chris Harris, who’s now nursing a shoulder injury, was 100 percent.
See how the Patriots and Broncos match up in our AFC Championship Game tale of the tape:
This is the most important position on the field, and the clear edge goes to Tom Brady over Peyton Manning.
Brady somehow remains in the extended prime of his career, while Manning’s skills took a sharp decline midway through last season, and he hasn’t recovered since.
Manning was serviceable in the Broncos’ 23-16 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, completing 21 of 37 passes for 222 yards, while Brady was fantastic in the Patriots’ 27-20 win over the Chiefs, going 28 of 42 for 302 yards with two touchdowns.
Even the most ardent Patriots supports couldn’t possibly argue their running backs are better than the Broncos’. Here’s the scary part: The Broncos’ running backs aren’t even that good.
Ronnie Hillman averaged 4.2 yards per carry, while C.J. Anderson averaged 4.7. The two combined for just 49 receptions for 294 yards in the passing game.
Patriots lead back Steven Jackson ran for just 2.4 yards per carry late in the season. Third-down back James White had 40 receptions for 410 yards through the air, however, giving the Patriots the advantage in the pass-catching-back category.
The Patriots were in dire straights at receiver when these teams faced off in Week 12 while Edelman and Amendola were on the mend.
Edelman stacks up with Broncos wideouts Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, but the Patriots don’t have a second banana on their level. One could argue, though, that the Patriots’ depth at the position, with Keshawn Martin behind Edelman, Amendola and LaFell, is better than the Broncos’, who have Jordan Norwood, Andre Caldwell and Cody Latimer behind Thomas and Sanders.
Rob Gronkowski might be the best tight end in NFL history. It’s safe to say the Broncos don’t have anyone comparable.
Vernon Davis has been OK since coming to Denver, catching 20 passes for 201 yards. Owen Daniels keeps plugging along as well, with 46 receptions for 517 yards with three touchdowns.
This one isn’t close, though.
This comparison is close.
It’s actually pretty simple, however: The Patriots’ offensive line has been better pass blockers, while the Broncos’ offensive line is better at opening holes in the running game.
The Broncos are down to their third left tackle, Ryan Harris, after losing Ryan Clady and Ty Sambrailo to injuries, while the Patriots are merely down to their second blind-side protector, Sebastian Vollmer, after losing Nate Solder.
INTERIOR DEFENSIVE LINE
The Patriots’ interior defensive line, featuring a rotation of rookie Malcom Brown, veteran Alan Branch and former New Orleans Saint Akiem Hicks, is nothing to sneeze at. They’re well-disciplined against the run, and Hicks can be dangerous getting after the quarterback on third down.
The Broncos’ interior line is better, however. Malik Jackson had 60 total quarterback pressures this season from five-technique defensive end/defensive tackle, and Derek Wolfe recently received a well-earned four-year contract extension after dominating against the run. Vance Walker and Sylvester Williams also get the job done clogging space in the middle of the line.
The Broncos and Patriots finished No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in sacks this season, so both teams are likely to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller is one of the best pass rushers in the league, and DeMarcus Ware remains dangerous despite being 33 years old.
The Patriots’ pass rush is a three-headed beast, featuring Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard. Jones is banged up right now, with abdomen, toe and knee injuries, so it remains to be seen how effective he’ll be against the Broncos’ leaky offensive line.
When healthy, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins might be the NFL’s best 1-2 punch at linebacker — though the Carolina Panthers’ Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are up there as well.
But are Hightower and Collins healthy? Hightower has a nagging knee injury, while Collins injured his back during the divisional round. Broncos linebackers Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan are solid, but they aren’t Hightower and Collins. The Patriots also have solid depth with Jerod Mayo and Jonathan Freeny as reserves.
Broncos star cornerback Chris Harris admittedly has not been himself lately. Even if he’s not 100 percent againt the Patriots, the Broncos are well stocked at the position with Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby on the depth chart.
Malcolm Butler has impressed as the Patriots’ No. 1 cornerback, and Logan Ryan, despite recent struggles, shut down Thomas in Week 12. Justin Coleman has been solid all season as the No. 3 option.
If Harris is good to go, the Broncos have the edge.
Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung were the NFL’s best safety tandem this season. McCourty is versatile, with range deep at free safety and the ability to cover 1-on-1 near the line of scrimmage. Chung is all you could ask for out of a strong safety, with stout run defense and lock-down skills in coverage on tight ends. Patriots reserves Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards and Tavon Wilson all possess specialized skills.
Broncos safeties T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart are good, but they’re not as dangerous.
Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski hit 91.7 percent of his field-goal attempts this season and didn’t miss an extra-point try. Ryan Allen averaged 46 yards per punt with just three touchbacks. He knocked 42.5 percent of his kicks inside the 20-yard line and had a net average of just 39.9 yards per punt.
Broncos kicker Brandon McManus hit 85.7 percent of his field-goal attempts and missed one extra-point try. Britton Colquitt averaged 43.6 yards per punt with four touchbacks. He knocked just 26.2 percent of his kicks inside the 20-yard line and had a net average of 39.7 yards per punt.
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