|01.18.14 at 2:22 pm ET|
Here’s everything you need to know about AFC title game between the Patriots and Broncos:
Our three favorite matchups on the afternoon:
1. Cornerback Kyle Arrington against wide receiver Wes Welker: This won’t be single coverage all game — the Patriots will likely trot out a handful of defensive backs in nickel and dime much of the afternoon in hopes of slowing down Peyton Manning and the Denver passing game. But given that all of New England’s defensive backs are healthy (as healthy as they can be at this time of the season), the Patriots have to feel good about their chances when Arrington is lined up opposite Welker. Arrington has quietly become one of the better slot corners in the league, and played a sizable role in rendering Welker a non-factor when the two teams met earlier in the season. (Welker had four catches for 31 yards in the loss to the Patriots earlier in the year.) Again, it won’t be man-to-man coverage all afternoon, but if Arrington and the rest of the New England defensive backs can slow down Welker, it’ll go a long way toward a Patriots win.
2. Quarterback Tom Brady against Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio: As we wrote here, Brady has owned Del Rio — in seven career meetings against a Del Rio-led defense, Brady is 7-0, with 17 touchdown passes, no picks, and has completed his passes at an absolutely ridiculous rate of 73 percent while leading New England to an average of 30 points per game in those contests. In terms of pass defense, the Broncos are actually missing a few of their key components, including linebacker Von Miller and cornerback Chris Harris. It remains to be seen what the Patriots try and do offensively, but expect them to do more passing than they have over the last month or so. That could be bad news for Del Rio and his charges.
3. The Patriots running game against the Denver run defense: Since the Dec. 8 win over the Browns, the Patriots running game has been on a steady rise — in that one, they ran the ball 21 times. That went to 22 carries (Dec. 15 vs. Miami), 34 (Dec. 22 at Baltimore), 43 carries (Dec. 29 against Buffalo) and 46 carries (Saturday against the Colts), all while the pass attempts have decreased from 52 to 25 in that same span. With weather and Brady’s history against Del Rio, matchups suggest that the Patriots might be inclined to throw the ball a little more than they have over the last month, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to stray too far from the run. Expect a steady dose of LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley on Sunday against the Broncos, who were tied for seventh in the league against the run in 2013, having allowed 101.6 rushing yards allowed per game.
Though Denver’s numbers against the run are strong, those numbers need to be placed in some sort of context. The Broncos played with a sizable lead for a large portion of the season. As a result, very few teams were interested in running the ball when faced with a deficit. To that point, Denver was 25th in the league in rushing attempts against with 420. As such, it’s understandable why those numbers are so good, as they have simply faced fewer rushing attempts per game than most defenses.
4. Under the radar opponent who Patriots’ fans need to know: We wrote this last time — even though he didn’t play — and we still believe it to be the case this time around: Tight end Julius Thomas brings an interesting wrinkle to the Denver passing game, and could be an important part of what the Broncos try and do Sunday. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Thomas had 45 catches on 62 targets for 590 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. If there’s a quiet, underrated part of the Denver passing game, Thomas is it. (He averaged five catches a game the last five weeks.) One thing worth noting, however, is that the Patriots seem to be better equipped to defend against opposing tight ends going forward, as rookie linebacker Jamie Collins has started to emerge more and more as that potential coverage linebacker New England has been missing for the last few seasons. Not to suggest that it will solely be man coverage between Thomas and Collins, but the rookie out of Southern Miss will play a sizable role in trying to slow down a guy who has become one of Manning’s favorite targets.
5. By the numbers: Over the last three games (two regular season games and one postseason game), Blount has almost as many rushing yards (431) as Brady has had passing yards (492). In Blount’s last 18 games with Tampa Bay (from roughly the midway point of the 2011 season and the entire 2012 campaign), he had a total of 288 rushing yards.
6. Quote of note: “I’m sure no one’s going to pick us to win this week. We’ve had our backs against the wall for a while. Really, the whole season we’ve lost players, and teams have really counted us out.” — Brady, speaking on WEEI earlier this week.
7. Patriots fans should be worried about — falling behind early. A perfect storm allowed them to climb out of a 24-point halftime hole the first time these two teams met on Nov. 24, but this time around, it might be too much to ask for, especially on the road. Playing well early and controlling the tempo is always important, but it’s especially key this week against the Broncos. If New England is able to seize command early, it would be able to rely on a suddenly sturdy running game to help put together some steady, sustained drives and control the clock. The best way to beat Manning is to keep him off the field as long as possible, and that means the Patriots need to assemble some long offensive series. Whether that’s through running the ball or some short passes, if New England can seize command of the tempo early in this one, it’ll go a long way toward a Patriots win.
8. Broncos fans should be worried about — the Patriots getting a superlative performance in the passing game from a relatively unexpected source. New England was able to get seven catches (on 10 targets) for 90 yards and a touchdown from Rob Gronkowski in the first meeting between the Patriots and Broncos earlier in the year. If New England is going to throw the football, it will need someone else to step into that void. While Shane Vereen did have eight catches (on 11 targets) for 60 yards in that November game, he remains a distinct possibility for an expanded role this time around because of the mismatch issues he is capable of creating. Then, there’s Danny Amendola, who had just three catches for 17 yards in the first Patriots-Broncos contest, but could help lift New England into the Super Bowl if he can replicate his performances against the Bills (10 catches, 104 yards) and Dolphins (10 catches, 131 yards) earlier this season. Other options could be rookies Aaron Dobson or Kenbrell Thompkins, although both have been a little banged up as of late and are longer shots to have a significant impact in this game.
9. One more thing: It’s difficult to stress just how much things have changed for these two teams since that November game. From a personnel perspective, the Broncos are without key defenders like Miller and Harris, and they have Thomas, who wasn’t in the lineup the first time around. Meanwhile, the Patriots are missing Gronkowski and linebacker Brandon Spikes, but it’s also important to remember that Blount and linebacker Dont’a Hightower — two of the most important players in the New England lineup over the last month — had zero impact on the game. (Blount’s game over the last month has allowed the Patriots to move from a pass-first team to a more run-heavy scheme over the last month.) In addition, Collins had yet to emerge as an impactful part of the linebacking corps. (According to Pro Football Focus, he played just 23 of a possible 90 defensive snaps that night. Fast forward to the divisional playoffs last week against the Colts, where he was on the field for every one of the 66 defensive snaps.) The weather will be different as well, as the 22-degree temperatures and high winds played a significant role in the first contest — this time, it’s expected to be nearly 60 degrees, and there will be minimal wind. While there will certainly be tendencies and schemes that will carry over from one game to the next, in truth, these two teams have changed about as much as you can in a two-month span.
|01.18.14 at 1:58 pm ET|
FOXBORO — Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have never really publicly cared what the rest of the world thinks of them. And they certainly don’t care what the rest of the NFL thinks. The only image they care about is the one associated with winning.
Still, that didn’t keep Dan Hausle of WHDH-TV (7News) of from peppering Brady for a second straight day with a poll question. On Friday, Hausle wanted to know what Brady thought of a midseason poll of current NFL players that had his head coach ranked as the second-least liked coach to play for.
“I don’t talk to many players around the league about Coach Belichick so I wouldn’t know that one either,” Brady said, referring to Thursday’s poll question about why he was the least liked quarterback.
Does it surprise Brady that players wouldn’t want to play for a coach as successful as Belichick?
“That’s a good question,” Brady conceded. “I like playing for a successful coach. That means we’re successful and winning and ultimately that’s hopefully what we’re here for.”
Certainly, that’s what the Patriots have achieved together under Belichick and Brady. They’ve won three Super Bowls, been to two others, more than any coach-quarterback combination in NFL history. The two are a combined 18-7 in the playoffs. If Belichick wins the Super Bowl this year, he would match Chuck Noll with four, Don Shula with six Super Bowl appearances and surpass Tom Landry with 21 career postseason wins.
“I think success is the most important thing, no question,” Brady said. “There’s nothing that’s better than winning games as far as I’m concerned.”
|01.17.14 at 6:08 pm ET|
FOXBORO — Before leaving on a cross-country trip to play in the AFC championship game, running back Stevan Ridley was informed by the NFL that his decision to wear red shoes in last Saturday’s 43-22 win over the Colts resulted in a fine of $5,250.
If wearing red shoes results in running for a pair of touchdowns in the playoffs, Ridley would likely gladly pay the fine every week.
But there’s another angle at play. Brandon Spikes was placed on season-ending injured reserve the Monday before the playoff game against the Colts, allegedly in part because he was late for a team meeting the previous Friday. Spikes was fined over $18,000 over two games for wearing his red cleats.
The NFL uniform code prohibits players from wearing cleats of a different color than the rest of his team.
The late L.C. Greenwood, with his gold-colored high heels, would stand up and applaud both Spikes and Ridley.
|01.17.14 at 3:03 pm ET|
FOXBORO — The illness that circulated around the Patriots locker room this week has knocked rookie linebacker Steve Beauharnais out of Sunday’s AFC championship. The linebacker was not at practice on Friday and did not make the trip to Denver on the team’s flight Friday afternoon.
Aside from Beauharnais, only three players are questionable for the game. Receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins were limited for a third straight day, as was punter Ryan Allen.
Linebacker Dont’a Hightower (ankle) and receiver Danny Amendola (groin) were both upgraded to full participation for the first time all week and are probable for the game.
Here is Friday’s complete report:
Did Not Participate
LB Steve Beauharnais (illness) OUT
P Ryan Allen (shoulder) QUESTIONABLE
WR Aaron Dobson (foot) QUESTIONABLE
WR Kenbrell Thompkins (hip) QUESTIONABLE
WR Danny Amendola (groin) PROBABLE
LB Dont’a Hightower (ankle) PROBABLE
OL Logan Mankins (ankle) PROBABLE
CB Alfonzo Dennard (knee/shoulder) PROBABLE
LB Dane Fletcher (groin) PROBABLE
RB Shane Vereen (groin) PROBABLE
|01.17.14 at 2:15 pm ET|
FOXBORO — Bill Belichick wants to keep the high times limited to football in the mile high air Sunday.
The Patriots coach, aware of Colorado’s new law legalizing recreational use of marijuana, specifically warned his players against getting high in the Rockies.
“It’s a business trip. Nobody is going to care about that,” running back LeGarrette Blount said Friday morning. “Bill told us about it, he basically told us, ‘Don’t go out there and be stupid.’ [That’s] really good advice.”
Asked directly if he planned to address his team, Belichick was less forthcoming, only passing along the NFL policy on illegal use of recreational drugs and directing the question to the league.
“I think we know what the NFL policy is on that,” Belichick said.
Pressed on it, Belichick referred the matter to the NFL, “I think that’s something you ought to take up with the NFL. I think you have any more questions about it, you should talk to the league about it. They’re the ones that have the policy.”
The use of marijuana is explicitly illegal under the NFL CBA and the league has advised the Broncos and Seahawks, teams that play in states where it’s legal, that any use would be a violation of NFL policy.
“I don’t know what’s going to develop as far as the next opportunity for medicine to evolve and to help either deal with pain or help deal with injuries,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said recently in New York City when asked about marijuana, medicinal and otherwise. “But we will continue to support the evolution of medicine.”
There would seem to be a larger window of opportunity for players to indulge, if so inclined. The team moved up its departure time to Friday afternoon, getting out to Denver a day earlier than normal to get acclimated to the higher altitude.
Tom Brady was more light-hearted about the press conference question Friday morning about weed.
“Hopefully [players don’t indulge]. This is a very important game for us and it’s a business trip,” Brady said.
|01.17.14 at 1:21 pm ET|
Peter King of Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports made his weekly appearance on Mut & Merloni Friday to talk about his AFC and NFC championship predictions and Peyton Manning. To hear the interview, go to the Mut & Merloni audio on demand page.
While they have different stories, King compared the legacies of Jerry Rice and Manning to prove his point that one game should not completely define Manning’s career.
“When I think of Jerry Rice, I don’t think that he couldn’t do it when he was 42,” King said. “The Manning story is different, but not altogether so. I think we place so much emphasis on how a guy does in very, very big games, and rightfully so if you’re talking about the greatest of all time, if you’re making that argument.
“I think it’s silly to say what happens in one game, this one game 20 years from now, is going to put Peyton Manning 18th on the mental all-time quarterback list, however you’d rank it, or fourth.”
For King, the argument against decreasing the value of Manning’s legacy on one game includes the potential for a worst-case scenario during Sunday’s game.
“Suppose that Manning puts up — take a number — 35 points,” King said. “And the Denver D just totally disintegrates and [Tom Brady] scores 45, and it’s a shootout and Brady wins.
“I just don’t think you can judge Peyton Manning based on you telling me, ‘Well if he loses this game he is here in NFL history or he is there.’ … Whether he wins another Super Bowl or not, I will consider him among the top five who ever played, but I won’t consider him the greatest, because you’re right, a quarterback does have to win championships.”
|01.17.14 at 1:17 pm ET|
One thing is clear about the predictions coming in for Sunday’s AFC championship game between the Patriots and the Broncos — most believe it’ll be a close game. Both local and national media favor Denver, but, like the score predictions, neither team has a blowout lead.
On WEEI’s Dennis & Callahan, Gery Callahan was the only one to favor the Patriots. While Callahan thinks Tom Brady will lead New England to a 31-28 win, John Dennis (37-24) and Kirk Minihane (31-24) believe Denver will win it behind a Peyton Manning MVP effort. Minihane and Callahan predict the 49ers will take the NFC title, while Dennis projects the Seahawks will pick up the game on their own turf.
On Mut & Merloni, Mike Mutnansky is going with the Broncos, 35-28. Lou Merloni has the Patriots emerging victorious, 31-27. The two are split on the NFC game as well, with Mutnansky taking San Francisco and Merloni tabbing Seattle.
At SB Nation, the Patriots and Broncos split the panel, with Ryan Van Bibber, Jason Chilton and Stephen White leaning toward New England while Joel Thorman, David Fucillo and Matt Ufford predicting a Denver win.
ESPN‘s group of 13 panelists, on the other hand, favor the the Broncos. Merril Hoge, Adam Schefter, Mike Ditka, and Cris Carter project that the Patriots will come out with the win. Meanwhile Eric Allen, Mike Golic, Ron Jaworski, KC Joyner, Chris Mortensen, Mark Schlereth, Seth Wickersham, Tom Jackson and Keyshawn Johnson are sticking with Denver.
USA Today‘s panel of seven favors the Broncos 6-1, with Jarrett Bell, Jim Corbett, Lindsay H. Jones, Pete O’Brien, Tom Pelissero and Simon Samano favoring Denver. The lone vote for the Patriots came from Nate Davis.
Following are more predictions from around the country:
Vinnie Iyer, Sporting News: Patriots 26, Broncos 23 — “The Patriots didn’t need to play the Bengals, and blew by the Colts. Now that they survived to get to the Broncos, it’s easier to trust them to advance. While the expected hype is around Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning, the real matchup is Bill Belichick vs. John Fox.”
Don Banks, Sports Illustrated: Broncos 34, Patriots 31 — “It still sounds quite strange, but I think Tony Dungy had it right when he told me on Monday that this meeting of Hall of Fame-bound quarterbacks will likely come down to the running games, and the run defenses.”
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