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Patriots’ Potential Playoff Opponents: Broncos

01.03.14 at 6:00 am ET
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With the Patriots securely in the playoffs, it’€™s time to start sizing up their possible postseason opponents. This is a series on the rest of the AFC playoff teams. We’ve already taken a look at the Chargers, Colts, Chiefs and Bengals. We wrap it up with the Broncos.

The skinny: Denver earned the No. 1 seed in the AFC by virtue of a very good regular-season slate that ended at 13-3. With the exception of an occasional misstep — road losses to the Patriots and Colts and a home defeat to the Chargers — the Broncos were able to meet the challenges that were placed in front of them. Their offense, led by quarterback Peyton Manning, had an epic year, with five games of 45 points or more. Meanwhile, for most of the regular season, the defense did just enough to allow the Broncos to win their share of shootouts, getting enough stops at key moments for Denver to come away with 13 wins. It remains to be seen if the Broncos will be able to shake off the ghosts of recent postseason failures (from both Manning and the franchise). For a team with such a proud history, it’€™s telling that Denver has had just two playoff wins since John Elway retired following Super Bowl XXXIII in January 1999.

Offense: The Broncos were an offensive machine for the better part of the 2013 season, churning out points at a record pace. (They were the first team to crack the 600-point barrier, breaking the mark of 589 points set by the 2007 Patriots.) Manning had a monster season — a 68 percent completion rate (450-for-659), 5,477 yards, 55 TDs and 10 picks. He was able to connect with six pass catchers for 60 receptions or more, as Demaryius Thomas (92 catches), Eric Decker (87 catches), Wes Welker (73 catches), Julius Thomas (65 catches) and Knowshon Moreno (60 catches) all played sizable roles in the passing game, while Moreno was able to finish with 1,038 yards rushing on 241 rush attempts. The Broncos were first across the board in total offense (457.3 yards per game), passing yards per game (340.3) and points per game (37.9). They were 15th in the league in rushing (117.1 yards per game). When compared to the rest of the playoff field, 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.

Defense: The defense took a sizable hit when Von Miller went down for the year, but has put up good numbers down the stretch and created some optimism in Denver that the Broncos D could do more than simply serve as a way to get Manning and the rest of the offense an occasional breather. Shaun Phillips leads the team with 10 sacks, while Malik Jackson (six sacks) has also had a good year. Defensive linemen Terrance Knighton and Robert Ayers are solid against the run, while defensive backs Danny Trevathan and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie have three interceptions each. Denver is 19th in total defense (356 yards allowed per game), 22nd in points per game (24.9) and 27th in passing yards allowed 254.4 yards allowed per game). If there’€™s a strength, it’€™s their run defense, where they were tied for seventh at 101.6 rushing yards allowed per game during the regular season. When it comes to takeaways, the Broncos are above average, with 26 (17 picks, nine fumbles) on the season, good for sixth-best in the AFC.

Why the Patriots should be afraid: Regardless of whether or not Manning can play in the cold, the Broncos have the best and most complete offense of any of the teams in the playoffs. If the Denver offense can put together a full 60 minutes, look out.

Why the Patriots shouldn’t be afraid: It took an epic comeback, but New England beat the Broncos the first time around, and that level of familiarity should  serve the Patriots well if these two teams did meet in the AFC title game this year. Denver has also shown itself to be vulnerable in several areas defensively, particularly when it comes to pass defense. (Also, it’€™s worth noting that quarterback Tom Brady has made a habit of routinely shredding Jack Del Rio defenses. Our pal Erik Frenz ran the numbers before the November game, and when you add the stats from that regular-season contest into the mix, the numbers are even more impressive: in seven games against Del Rio defenses, Brady is 171-for-235 (73 percent), 1,771 yards, 17 touchdowns and 0 interceptions.

One guy to look out for: Tight end Julius Thomas didn’t play when the two teams met in the regular season — he was sidelined with a right knee issue. While the 6-foot-5, 250-pounder certainly isn’t overwhelming in the Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski sense, he’€™s a dependable pass-catching threat who is a very good red zone target.

Potential playoff villain: We wouldn’t be surprised at all if Welker has “Hit ‘€˜Em Up” playing on a loop on his iPod in the days leading up to a potential Patriots-Broncos AFC title game. The former New England receiver was a bit underwhelming the first time these two teams played earlier in the regular season, and it goes without saying that he would dearly love another shot at taking down his old team.

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