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Five incredibly early thoughts on Patriots and Broncos

01.12.14 at 8:06 pm ET
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Here are five thoughts on Sunday’€™s AFC title game between the Patriots and Broncos:

Matchups could dictate that the Patriots throw the ball more than they have in the last month.

If there’€™s a strength to the Denver defense — particularly since pass rusher extraordinaire Von Miller went down for the season — it’€™s the run defense. Over the course of the regular season, the Broncos were tied for seventh at 101.6 rushing yards allowed per game during the regular season. (By way of comparison, Denver was 19th in total defense at 356 yards allowed per game, 22nd in points per game at 24.9 points per game and 27th in passing yards allowed at 254.4 yards allowed per game.) The Broncos yielded 100 yards or more on the ground in eight of their 16 regular-season games. None of this to suggest that the Patriots are going to all of a sudden abandon the run — they’d be foolish to change things all that dramatically, especially with LeGarrette Blount in the midst of a career renaissance. In the context of this conversation, it’s important to note that the teams that beat Denver during the regular season found a way to run on them — in their three losses, Denver allowed 414 rushing yards, an average of 138 rushing yards per game.

Tom Brady will be happy to see Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio.

It’€™s worth noting that Brady has made a habit of routinely shredding Del Rio defenses. Our pal Erik Frenz took a look at the numbers in the days leading up to November’€™s Broncos-Patriots game, and when you add the numbers from New England’€™s comeback win that memorable night, the stats are truly staggering: in seven games against Del Rio defenses, Brady is 171-for-235 (73 percent), 1,771 yards, 17 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. Some of that has to be taken with a grain of salt, as Brady was going up against some relatively weak Jaguars’€™ teams when Del Rio was the head coach in Jacksonville. But the consistency for Brady is impressive. (One more statistical note, building off a statistical nugget from last week’€™s preview from Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders: since 2001, the Patriots are 9-0 in the playoffs when playing a team for the first time, and 9-7 when it’€™s a rematch.)

Julius Thomas will bring a new wrinkle to the game.

The Denver tight end didn’€™t play the first time these two teams met back in November — he was dealing with a knee issue — and could present a new challenge for the New England defense. The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder isn’€™t an elite level tight end in the vein of Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski, but he did have 65 catches for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns over the course of the regular season, and developed into a steady and consistent presence in the Broncos passing game. It is worth mentioning that the Patriots could be better equipped to deal with someone like Thomas this time around, as the emergence of rookie linebacker Jamie Collins in pass coverage against Indy tight end Coby Fleener was impressive Saturday night in divisional playoff action.

As it stands right now, it doesn’€™t look like weather will be a factor.

Denver offers a wide variety of climate possibilities at this time of year, and there will likely be lots of reminders about Peyton Manning‘€™s struggles in cold weather — as well as Brady’€™s exemplary record when the mercury drops. But according to weather.com, it will actually be a pretty nice day in Denver next Sunday for the AFC title game, with temperatures between 55 and 32. It’€™s important to remember that things can obviously change between now and then, but at this point, it doesn’€™t look like there are going to be issues with weather for the AFC title game.

The Broncos fumbled the ball more than anyone in the league this season.

Denver led the league with 16 fumbles over the course of the regular season, with Manning fumbling five times (and losing three of them). The first time these two teams met, it was a fumblepalooza, as the Broncos fumbled five times and lost three of them (Montee Ball, Tony Carter and Trindon Holliday all lost fumbles for Denver). Meanwhile, the Patriots had six fumbles and lost three of them (Brady, Blount and Stevan Ridley all lost the handle for New England). When it comes to overall turnover ratio, Denver gives away the ball a little more than the rest of the teams in the postseason, with 10 picks and a league-leading 16 fumbles. The Broncos are above average when it comes to takeaways, with 26 (17 picks, nine fumbles) on the season, good for sixth-best in the AFC.

Read More: Jack Del Rio, Jamie Collins, Julius Thomas, Peyton Manning

Denver Broncos hold off San Diego Chargers, setting up another AFC title game between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning

01.12.14 at 7:53 pm ET
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The AFC championship that everyone expected is now reality.

Peyton Manning threw short touchdown passes to Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker to help the Broncos build a 17-0 lead and hold on for a 24-17 win over the San Diego Chargers Sunday at Sports Authority Field in Denver. As a result, Manning and Tom Brady will meet in an AFC championship game for a third time.

Kickoff in the AFC championship at Sports Authority Field in Denver is scheduled for 3 p.m. ET (CBS) next Sunday, followed by the NFC championship between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks in Seattle at 6:30 p.m. ET (FOX). The winners of next weekend’s games will meet in Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey on Feb. 2.

The two quarterbacks have split their previous two AFC title game encounters, with Brady winning in Jan. 2004 and Manning gaining a measure of revenge with his comeback in Jan. 2007. In both cases, the future hall of fame quarterbacks went on to lead their teams to Super Bowl titles.

“It’s about the Broncos versus the Patriots,” Manning told CBS’ Tracy Wolfson immediately after the game.

Brady and Bill Belichick also defeated Manning in Jan. 2005 in the AFC divisional round, 20-3, en route to winning Super Bowl XXXIX.

This will be the 15th time overall that the two rival quarterbacks have squared off, with Brady leading 10-4. Brady and the Patriots spotted Manning and the Broncos a 24-0 halftime lead at Gillette Stadium on Nov. 24 before Brady and the Patriots engineered a miraculous comeback and a 34-31 overtime win.

Sunday in Denver, Manning was 25-of-36 for 230 yards. He connected for touchdown passes of two yards to Thomas in the first quarter and three yards to Welker in the second quarter to build a 14-0 halftime lead.

As Denver appeared to be going in for another touchdown just before halftime, Manning was intercepted in the back of the end zone his pass bounced off Eric Decker and was picked off by Donald Butler.

Matt Prater‘s 45-yard field goal put the Broncos up, 17-0, with 9:35 left in the third. The Chargers finally got on the board in the fourth quarter when Philip Rivers found Keenan Allen for the first of two fourth-quarter TD connections.

Denver marched down the field and when Knowshon Moreno went in from three yards out, the Broncos led 24-7 with 8:12 left in the fourth. The Chargers responded with yet another Rivers to Allen TD strike.

After a successful onside kick, the Chargers drove down to the Broncos 12 before settling for Nick Novak‘s 30-yard field goal with 3:53 left. That made it a one-score game at 24-17.

Facing a third-and-17, Manning found Julius Thomas on a 21-yard sideline pattern to keep the drive alive. Moments later, it was Manning again to Thomas for nine yards on another third down conversion to help salt the game away.

Read More: 2014 NFL playoffs, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Peyton Manning

Report: Ryan Allen gets MRI on right shoulder

01.12.14 at 2:44 pm ET
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FOXBORO — The Patriots might find out soon if Stephen Gostkowski or someone else might have to take the place of punter Ryan Allen in the AFC championship.

The dinged up punter is scheduled to undergo testing on his right shoulder on Sunday, a league source tells Nick Underhill of MassLive.com.

Allen was injured during the second quarter of Saturday’s 43-22 win over the Colts when trying to get on top of a bad snap from Danny Aiken and was tackled at his own goal line. He punted following the safety and then left the game. Allen was spotted on the sideline clutching his right shoulder and consulted with Patriots team doctor Tom Gill, a shoulder specialist.

The concern is that Allen might have sprained his acromioclavicular (AC) joint in the shoulder. If the MRI confirms the diagnosis, healing can take as little as two weeks or as many as six, depending on the severity.

If the MRI reveals a less severe injury, Allen could be cleared next week since he is a punter. Any other player would likely be done for the season, a medical source tells WEEI.com.

Allen, in his first season out of Louisiana Tech, was having a solid rookie season, averaging 45.9 yards punt during the regular season, with a 39.9 net average.

Allen had one punt of 55 yards Saturday night before getting injured on his second punt of the night. Gostkowski punted the rest of the night quite ably. He punted five times for an average of 41.8 yards, including a net of 36.6 yards and a long of 53 yards on his first punt of the night.

Read More: AC joint, New England Patriots, Ryan Allen, Stephen Gostkowski

Bill Belichick says there’s no advantage to playing either San Diego Chargers or Denver Broncos in AFC championship

01.12.14 at 1:43 pm ET
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It’s the cliche question asked of every player and coach when they advance to a game before the opponent is determined. Who would you rather face?

In the case of Bill Belichick and the Patriots, the question Sunday morning was whether there’s an advantage to playing either San Diego or Denver in next Sunday’s AFC championship.

“I don’€™t really think we look at it that way,” Belichick said in a conference call. “I certainly understand what the question is, but I really just don’€™t think we look at it that way. First of all, we don’€™t have any control over the situation. Second of all, whatever it is for us, it’€™s the same for the same for them, so the teams that we’€™ve played have played us and the teams we haven’€™t played, haven’€™t played us. I do think this: whoever we play, these are the two best teams in the AFC and in order to play next week, you have to play well this week. Whichever team that is today that plays the best will deserve to play next week. We played well enough last night to be able to play next week.”

There something else Belichick knows for sure, if it’s the Chargers, they don’t have to travel. They’ll get to play the AFC championship at home for the third straight season. If it’s Denver, then it’s a date with Peyton Manning at Invesco Field at Mile High next Sunday.

“So whoever we play, we’€™re playing the other best team in the AFC,” Belichick added. “We’€™re going to have to play well. We’€™re going to have to play better than we played last night. The competition is going to get stiffer. I think we’€™ve all seen in the playoffs that it’€™s really about that game, that matchup, that day. Whatever happened during the regular season or some other year or some other time, or whatever reference point you want to take, is really not that significant. What it’€™s about is how things go on that particular day, just being at our best on the biggest game of the year. All of us players, coaches, making good decisions, good execution, good communication, playing good situational football, playing good down-after-down consistent football ‘€“ that will be the challenge this week for whoever it us we play.”

How will Belichick and his staff watch and study the Chargers and Broncos?

“We’€™ve already broken down the Denver and San Diego games to this point, their last sequence of games, the ones we think are most relevant, for our preparations,” Belichick said. “And we’€™ll start putting then pen to the paper and summarizing what we’€™ve seen and getting the scouting report ready and maybe putting together some game plan ideas. We’€™ll definitely watch the game. I’€™ll watch it. One good thing is that you get to sit there and watch Denver play San Diego and watch both teams go. Those are two good teams right there. Then once it’€™s over, obviously we’€™ll put one of them in the file for next year and use the other one, we’€™ll get back to work on the other one. We’€™ve done preparations on both teams preliminarily, on a preliminary basis. Now we’€™ll start to get a little further into it but eventually we’€™ll whittle it down to one. We’€™ll work on both teams.”

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Read More: AFC Championship, Bill Belichick, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots

T.Y. Hilton: Patriots’ game plan was to take me out of the game

01.12.14 at 6:35 am ET
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FOXBORO — One of Bill Belichick‘s strengths as a coach is that he rarely lets one opposing player beat his team, devising a game plan to take that particular player out of the game.

That is exactly what the Patriots did to Colts star wide receiver T.Y. Hilton on Saturday night after he caught 82 passes for 1,083 yards and five touchdowns in the regular season and then hauled in 13 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns last week against the Chiefs on wild card weekend.

Although he caught four passes for 104 yards and a touchdown in the game, a large chunk came on a 46-yard completion. Overall the Patriots defense, particularly Aqib Talib, did an outstanding job of taking the star Colts receiver out of the game.

“[Aqib] gets paid, too. He made some plays and I made some plays,” Hilton said. “That was a better team today. I saw the whole book, I saw double, triple and no single and that was the game plan to take me out of the game. We have to step up and unfortunately we didn’€™t come up with a W. I knew coming in they were going to throw the book at me and I knew the coverage€™s they were going to throw at me.”

After Colts quarterback Andrew Luck torched the Chiefs last weekend for 443 yards and four touchdowns in the air (making up for three interceptions), the Patriots forced Luck into a career-high four interceptions, paving the way for New England to move on to its eighth AFC championship game in 13 years.

“They do a good job of disrupting your timing and rhythm and getting hands on guys,” Luck said. “[They] have a good relentless pass rush and I thought our offensive linemen did a great job this game giving time to get balls out. They do a good job of disrupting things if you could capsulate it in one sentence.”

Winning the turnover battle is important in every game, but it becomes even more important in the postseason, especially if you’€™re the Patriots.

Prior to Saturday, since 1970, in the postseason the Patriots were 16-1 in games with a positive turnover ratio. The streak continued Saturday night as the Patriots forced four Colts turnovers en route to their 43-22 win with key mistakes by the Colts offense being one of the biggest reasons why.

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Read More: Andrew Luck, Aqib Talib, Chuck Pegano, Colts

Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower spark defense in playoff win over Colts

01.12.14 at 3:14 am ET
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FOXBORO — The Patriots’€™ next-man-up attitude has been a constant theme with this year’€™s team, and it couldn’t have been exemplified better than Saturday night with the play of linebackers Dont’€™a Hightower and Jamie Collins.

With starting linebackers Jerod Mayo on injured reserve since mid-Oct. and Brandon Spikes being added to that list earlier in the week, the Patriots entered the game very thin at the linebacker position. But, as has been the case with the team all year, players have stepped in and filled the role, with Saturday night it being Hightower and Collins.

Both players played every defensive snap in the 43-22 win over the Colts with Hightower leading the team with eight tackles and an interception, followed by Collins who had six tackles, including two for losses, while adding an interception of his own.

Collins, a rookie drafted in the second round out of Southern Mississippi, played in all 16 regular season games, but didn’t really start to see much playing time until late November when he had 10 tackles against the Broncos.

“If you watch, [Collins] has been getting better week by week,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. “That’€™s what it’€™s about. Our young guys have worked their butts off all year and there’€™s cash in that now. All that work that they’€™ve put in is showing up now and I’€™m happy for them. I think he has a lot more big games in him and we’ve got to keep it rolling.”

Collins was all over the field Saturday night whether it was lining up on the outside opposite an Indianapolis receiver, thrashing the gap hard up the middle to stop the run, or hitting Colts quarterback Andrew Luck a team-high three times and sacking him once — the 23-year-old was making plays.

“First of all, he’€™s worked very hard,” coach Bill Belichick said. “He’€™s been very dependable and durable. He hasn’€™t missed anything all year. He started out playing ‘€“ not started out but he’€™s playing outside linebacker in regular, he plays off the line in some regular, he plays nickel linebacker. As you saw today, he’€™s out there split out tight end covering them on fade patterns and blitzing up the middle and he’€™s making tackles in line.

“I think he’€™s pretty comfortable wherever he is, whether he’€™s in line taking blockers or blitzing, or covering tight ends from in close. He’€™s a very versatile athlete that’€™s smart, works hard, really has a great team attitude. I love having him on our team.”

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Read More: Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Patriots,

Charles Barkley to Patriots fans: When Bill Belichick and Tom Brady leave, ‘Y’all team is going to [expletive] suck’

01.12.14 at 3:11 am ET
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FOXBORO — No one in sports is more outspoken than Charles Barkley.

On Saturday night, following a 43-22 Patriots win over the Colts at Gillette Stadium, he showed again why that is while inside the Patriots locker room.

Barkley was the guest of owner Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick and the former NBA star was visiting with LeGarrette Blount, the star running back who attended a football camp at Barkley’s alma mater of Auburn University before going onto stardom at the University of Oregon.

But it wasn’t Blount’s four touchdown performance that got Barkley all fired up. No, Barkley got all fired up when reporters started asking him about the job Kraft and Belichick have done.

“Every year, they have a chance to win. That’s pretty cool,” Barkley began.

Is he a Patriots fan?

“No, no. Bill is my friend. Mr. Kraft is my friend,” Barkley continued. “But I was just making a point. In sports, if I’m a fan, I want my team to have a chance to win. That’s all I want. In 99 percent of the cities in every other sport, not just football, your team sucks. You have no chance of winning. The Patriots have a legitimate shot of winning every year. That’s pretty cool.

“It bothers me, it bothers me that y’all don’t appreciate them having a chance to win every year.”

ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan, a hall of fame basketball columnist who knows Barkley very well, challenged Barkley, “How do you know we don’t appreciate it?”

Barkley didn’t hesitate.

“Y’all don’t. Y’all don’t. Unfortunately, because of the Internet and [crap] like that, you all win the championship or you don’t.

“In New England, y’all have a chance to win every year. I’m impressed with the Patriots organization because they’ve lost so many people and y’all take winning for granted. Y’all do.

“Let me tell you guys something: When Bill Belichick leaves and Tom Brady leaves, y’all team is going to [expletive] suck.”

That’s something that many assume New England fans already know. Not Barkley.

“No, you all don’t know that,” he said. “You all don’t know that. You all do take it for granted. You all think, ‘We have to win the Super Bowl or the season sucks.’ You all do [take it for granted].”

Read More: Bill Belichick, Charles Barkley, New England Patriots, nfl

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