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Crafting a champion: Patriots, Broncos have similar approach when it comes to team-building

01.16.14 at 12:26 am ET
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While the Patriots and Broncos have superstar quarterbacks that will get top billing heading into Sunday’€™s AFC title game, both teams are more than just a pair of elite signal-callers.

The two franchises have been shaped in much the same way. While the franchise quarterback is the centerpiece, they’€™ve managed to build through the draft, augment those selections with a sprinkling of free agents and maybe a trade or two, and add some much-needed depth with some street free agents. It’€™s one of the reasons they’€™ve been able to reach football’€™s final four this weekend.

While it’€™s important to note that both rosters have suffered more than their share of key injuries, we’€™ve decided to examine the current 53-man roster to see how each team has gone about the team-building process. And while some of the classifications are different, the fundamental definitions still apply — these teams share a similar approach when it comes to crafting a roster.

Of the 53 players on the Broncos roster, 21 were drafted by the organization and still play there as of Tuesday, while 19 were veteran free agent signings. In addition, eight were signed as college free agents, two grabbed via waivers. one acquired in trade and two signed and promoted via the practice squad.

Six of Denver’€™s offensive starters were drafted (wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, running back Knowshon Moreno, tight end Julius Thomas, offensive linemen Zane Beadles and Orlando Franklin), while one was acquired via waivers (offensive lineman Chris Clark) and four were signed as free agents (offensive linemen Manny Ramirez and Louis Vasquez, wide receiver Wes Welker, quarterback Peyton Manning).

On defense, four of the Broncos starters were drafted (defensive linemen Malik Jackson and Sylvester Williams, as well as linebackers Nate Irving and Danny Trevathan), four were picked up as free agents (defensive linemen Terrance Kingston and Shaun Phillips, defensive backs Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Mike Adams), two were rookie free agents (linebacker Wesley Woodyard, defensive back Duke Ihenacho) and one was picked up via a trade (cornerback Champ Bailey).

(Ironically, in his nearly two full years as head coach in Denver, now-Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels selected several key players who are still on the roster. In 2009, the Broncos drafted Ayers, Bruton and Moreno, while Decker and Demaryius Thomas were added in the 2010 draft.)

Meanwhile, New England’€™s 53-man roster has 23 players who were drafted directly into organization and still play there as of Tuesday, while 11 were signed as veteran free agents. Five were acquired via waivers, and three via trade. Eleven are rookie and first-year free agents.

“€It doesn’€™t really matter how a player gets to the New England Patriots; whether he’€™s drafted, traded, signed as a free agent, signed as an unrestricted free agent, signed as a street free agent, it doesn’€™t matter,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “We have guys from all those categories. It’€™s much more important what they do when they get here than what road they took to get here.”

In New England, everything flows through Tom Brady, but the Patriots have managed to do a nice job filling in around him. When it comes to New England’€™s unofficial offensive depth chart, six of the starters were taken in the draft and developed by the franchise (left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Logan Mankins, right tackle Marcus Cannon, Brady, wide receiver Julian Edelman, running back Stevan Ridley). Three were signed as street free agents (center Ryan Wendell, right guard Dan Connolly, wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins) and two were added as veteran free agents (tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, wide receiver Danny Amendola).

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Peyton Manning says Bill Belichick will ‘go down as the greatest coach of all time’

01.15.14 at 10:28 pm ET
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Bill Belichick has often said that he has never coached against a quarterback like Peyton Manning.

The Broncos signal caller returned the favor on Wednesday.

Much has been made of Manning’s 14-game series with Tom Brady, a series Brady leads 10-4. But Manning and Belichick have an even longer rivalry. Since 2000, Belichick has faced Manning 17 times, with the New England coach leading that series 11-6. The 11 wins is the most by any coach to have ever game-planned against the future hall of famer.

Manning said that record, and history, makes Belichick the “best coach” he’s ever competed against.

“He’ll go down as the greatest coach of all time,” Manning added.

Belichick said Wednesday that he’s not just preparing for Manning but the entire team.

“We prepare for the Denver Broncos‘€™ entire football team. Obviously Manning is a great quarterback,” Belichick said. “There’€™s no question about that. But the Broncos are a good football team. They’€™re good on defense, they’€™re good in the kicking game, they have a good running game, they have a lot of good receivers, a lot of good offensive linemen.

“We have to prepare for the entire team. Peyton certainly is a key guy in it; the offense runs through him, but we have to do a good job on everybody. He’€™s as good as we’€™re going to face ‘€“ as good as we have faced. It will be a big challenge for us. I think our defensive football team realizes that and we’€™ll be out there Sunday to do our very best at defending not only him, but the other 10 guys that are out there with him. They’€™re all pretty good too. Big challenge, we’€™re looking forward to it.”

Read More: Bill Belichick, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, nfl

NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger: Logan Mankins still one of best guards in NFL

01.15.14 at 10:01 pm ET
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FOXBORO — Nothing gets a retired offensive lineman more cranked up than talking about a throwback like Patriots left guard Logan Mankins.

Brian Baldinger, who spent 13 seasons in the league as an offensive lineman and is now working as an analyst for NFL Network, said Wednesday that Mankins is one of the top 5 guards in the league, and added that even after nine years in the NFL, there are few linemen who are able to get a good, consistent push like the Fresno State product.

“€œI think he’€™s a very good technician, which starts with his footwork,”€ Baldinger said of Mankins. “He never seems to be out of position — in pass between pass protection, he always seems to be between his man and Tom. He doesn’€™t seem to get turned real quickly or get beat quickly. He went out to offensive tackle this year — not many guards can go out there and protect the blind side of Tom the way he did for as well as he did. Technique is what travels.

“œHe’€™s a very good puller, so that means A) you have to get out of your stance, and be athletic. And B), you have to be able to get around and through a lot of traffic. Which isn’€™t easy to do. That speaks to footwork and athletic ability. And then, sometimes, there’€™s just nothing there. You have to know when nothing is there and you have to clean it out and recognize when, on the run, when there’€™s nothing there. Or, it’€™s ‘€˜Do I try to make something?’€™ or ‘€˜Do I bulldoze my way?’€™ or ‘€˜Is my guy somewhere in there?’€™ Some guys can’€™t see that. He seems to be able to see all of that.”

The 31-year-old Mankins, in his ninth year in the league, has played both left guard and left tackle this season with the Patriots, and was honored for his work with a second All-Pro nod, as well as his sixth Pro Bowl berth. He’€™s the senior member of New England’€™s offensive line — since entering the starting lineup in 2005, Mankins has helped New England finish in the top 10 on offense eight times, including a seventh-ranked offense in 2013. That includes a suddenly resurgent running game that has allowed the Patriots to head into Sunday’€™s AFC title game with a dangerous running attack.

Over the years, Mankins has made no secret of his love of run blocking. Baldinger noted that with more and more pro-style passing offenses at the college level, it’€™s hard to find younger offensive linemen who know proper run-blocking technique — but that was never a problem with Mankins.

“There’€™s not many guys who are great run blockers in this league anymore because they don’€™t run block in college,”€ Baldinger said. “I know Logan did at Fresno, but he had a good head coach at Fresno. I just think he’€™s still a good run blocker. He still takes guys off the ball.

“He’€™s still really good in space. When they run a pull to the left, out in space to the weak side — a toss crack or whatever because — he’€™s really good out in space. They pull and run really, really well. He still does that well.”

Mankins and left tackle Nate Solder are two of the biggest reasons Baldinger calls the Patriots a ‘€œleft-handed’€ team at this point in the postseason.

“œI don’€™t see any slowdown in his game to say, ‘€˜OK, who is better than him right now.’€™ I think it’€™s very difficult to say that,’€ he said of Mankins. ‘€œI think there are some tackles who are clear cut, because tackles do more than guards. I think that him and [right guard] Dan Connolly, it’€™s a good setup, because I think your guard makes your tackle better and your center better because they work so well together, between him and Dan. They’€™ve had a lot of changes in that line to, on the right side at tackle. I just think that the fact that he lines up and plays every snap, kicks out and plays tackle when they need to in a pinch with no loss of technique, that’€™s impressive.

“When [quarterback] Tom [Brady] drives the ball, when he has to make a ‘€˜stick’€™ throw, whether its a seam route to Julian [Edelman] against Cleveland in the final minute and he has to drive that ball, you have to be able to step into that throw to do it and you need a clean pocket up front to do it,’€ Baldinger added. ‘€œYou have to set short. A lot of guys give up ground and still stay between their man and the quarterback. They don’€™t do that here. They set short up front so that Tom can step up into that throw, and that’€™s really important to them and what they do offensively.”

Read More: brian baldinger, Logan Mankins, Nate Solder,

Peyton Manning explains ‘Omaha’ audible

01.15.14 at 9:57 pm ET
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It was heard so often by TV boom mics in the AFC divisional game against the Chargers that many began wondering if Peyton Manning had a lot of relatives living in Nebraska.

The call “Omaha” was heard from Manning over 20 times at the line of scrimmage.

That begs the question, naturally, what does Omaha mean? Manning finally answered that question on Wednesday but listening to the tongue-in-cheek answer you wonder if there’s some intentional misdirection included.

“I know a lot of people ask what Omaha means,” Manning said, acknowledging this week’s furor. “Omaha is a run play, but it could be a pass play or a play-action pass, depending on a couple things: which way we’re going, the quarter, and the jerseys that we’re wearing. It varies, really, from play to play. So, there’s your answer to that one.”

There were cackles of laughter heard in the Broncos media work room as Manning answered. That laughter will probably be drowned out by the crowd – and Omaha – on Sunday at Sports Authority Field.

Don’t say we didn’t warn you first.

Read More: Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, nfl, Omaha

Devin McCourty says Denver Broncos TE Julius Thomas presents ‘every type of matchup problem’

01.15.14 at 9:40 pm ET
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FOXBORO — On Nov. 24 at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots didn’t have to worry about tight end Julius Thomas.

Thomas missed the game with and the following one with a knee injury.

The Patriots didn’t have to account for the size (6-foot-5, 250 pounds) and catch radius of one of the best young receiving tight ends in the NFL.

Thomas finished with 65 catches for 788 yards for a 12.1 yards per catch average and 12 touchdowns in the regular season. He matched that average last week with six catches and 76 yards in the 24-17 win over the Chargers.

What have the Patriots seen on the film from Julius Thomas and what type of matchup problems might he present this time after not playing in the first game?

“Every type of matchup problem,” Devin McCourty said. “Going into the first game we didn’€™t know if he would be playing or wouldn’€™t be playing so we studied him a lot for that game too. He is a bigger, taller tight end but he is very explosive. I think he creates a tough matchup. They use him to make sure they get him against safeties, get him against linebackers and even get him against corners sometimes.

“I think it will be similar to when we played Jimmy Graham on the Saints. He’€™ll be out wide, he’€™ll be backside sometimes, he’€™ll be in the tight end position, so we’€™ll just have to know where he’€™s at and different guys will be on him. You just have to play tough and try to match him but he’€™s a very good player and he knows what he’€™s doing out there depending on the matchup he has.”

The Patriots won’t have to just disguise coverages for Peyton Manning. A tight end like Thomas will necessitate different looks from the defense.

“I think this is one of those games where you have to understand that each guy is going to have to take different matchups and you have to perform,” McCourty said Wednesday. “It is going to be the toughest game of the year and it is the biggest game of the year and there are going to be times where, across the board all four of those guys are going to be man-to-man coverage with somebody on our team and you are going to have to try and win the matchup.

“I think defensively you do different things against them and you try to do one thing, do another thing. In these big games usually it comes down to one man versus another man and whoever comes up with the play.”

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Aqib Talib on Marquice Cole: ‘Cash that check, baby’

01.15.14 at 8:28 pm ET
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FOXBORO — Aqib Talib is happy for ex-teammate Marquice Cole.

Cole, who signed with the Broncos Tuesday after spending nearly two seasons with the Patriots, was still a popular player in the Patriots locker room on Wednesday despite the fact that he’ll be on the opposing sideline for Sunday’s AFC title game, and especially with Talib.

‘€œThat’€™s my dog,’€ Talib said of the 30-year-old Cole, who has played 64 career games and totaled 36 tackles with four interceptions and 14 pass breakups to go with 51 special-teams stops.

Cole was cut by the Patriots and out of the game for a couple of weeks before the Broncos picked him up Tuesday. While a few fans harassed Cole on Twitter for the decision, Talib said it was OK with him.

“Cash that check, baby,” he said with a smile when asked about Cole. “Got to pay the bills, man.’€

Talib said he wasn’t worried about Cole potentially divulging any secrets to the Broncos.

“Quice can’t tell Peyton Manning nothing that Peyton Manning doesn’t already know about us,” he said.

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Logan Mankins on Patriots running game of late: ‘We have blocked better’

01.15.14 at 6:39 pm ET
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FOXBORO — There is no denying the Patriots running game has been on a roll the past few weeks, as in the last three games the team has rushed for 545 yards and 10 touchdowns. With that has come all of the headlines for the running backs, particularly LaGarrette Blount.

But Blount wouldn’t be making the cover of Sports Illustrated and getting all the added publicity without the work of the Patriots€™ offensive line.

“I think we have blocked better,” guard Logan Mankins said. “I think the backs have run better. It is just a combination of everything. It is not just the line, it’€™s the tight ends, the fullback. On those big, long runs you need receivers blocking. So it is just a total group effort and I think we have all done a better job.”

Even with the great play of the offensive line, Blount has been a monster rushing for 431 yards in his last three games with eight touchdowns. Leading the way for Blount on a number of his runs, Mankins has noticed a steady improvement for the 27-year-old over the course of the season.

“I think for the linemen I think his speed has surprised us but we saw that a couple times earlier in the season,” said Mankins. “It is just opportunities. He has gotten enough opportunities here lately and the holes have been pretty good. He does a great job of having patience and finding the hole first of all. He doesn’t overrun it. He doesn’t cut it too soon. He gives you time to get your block made and he hits it going forward. The most impressive thing is the way he’€™s just dragging people. No one is just arm tackling. He is not going down with just one guy. He is always gaining yards, even after contact, which is very impressive. It is great to have a guy doing that.”

Some say offensive linemen prefer run blocking over pass blocking, but for Mankins it doesn’t matter.

“As long as we’€™re scoring points we’€™re happy,” the 31-year-old said. “You can’€™t win if you don’€™t score. If we’€™re throwing the ball well we’€™re happy, if we’€™re running the ball well we’€™re happy as long as we score.”

The leader of the offensive line also discussed the closeness of the unit as a whole — one that allowed just 40 sacks in the regular season and led the way for the Patriots’€™ rushing attack, which averaged 129 yards a game.

“We get along good. Linemen usually do,” said Mankins. “We hang out a lot together. We do a lot of things together. We enjoy being around each other. Am I the leader of the line? I don’€™t know, you can ask those guys. I know we are a tight knit group. We always pull for each other. We enjoy being around each other.”

Mankins is in his ninth season in the league, all coming with the Patriots, and he will be playing in his 17th playoff game Sunday afternoon and seeking his third Super Bowl appearance.

“It has been a long ride,” Mankins said. “When you say nine years it seems like a long time but it has flown by. That is the one thing about this game, you can say you are in the game a long time but it feels like it’€™s gone like this. It has been fun. I’ve enjoyed it. I just hope it continues for a few more years and hopefully a successful one this year.”

Read More: AFC Championship, LaGarrette Blount, Logan Mankins, Patriots
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