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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
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