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Five reasons why AFC title game will be completely different than regular-season matchup between Patriots-Broncos

01.15.14 at 4:16 pm ET
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While there are certain fundamental elements you can take from the November win over the Broncos and apply them to Sunday’s AFC title game — the two superstar quarterbacks, for example — there are plenty of reasons why this game will be far different than the November overtime classic. Personnel changes abound on both sides, and different weather conditions (it could be almost 40 degrees warmer for this game as opposed to that chilly November night at Gillette Stadium) mean that when it comes to figuring out what’s going to happen Sunday, using November’s game as a guide could be a big mistake.

“€œI think we’€™re going to see a different team,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “I don’€™t know about different teams, but I think we’€™re going to see a different game.

“€œWe have some players that are playing in this game that didn’€™t play in that game and so do they. We’€™ll just have to see how it all plays out,’€ he added. “€œThere are some new faces out there as well. We’€™ll just have to see how all that unfolds. It’€™s just like any time you play a team twice: I think you look at what happened but you have to erase the board and start all over again.”

“There’€™s nothing that’€™s happened in the past that’€™s going to help us try to win this game on Sunday,” quarterback Tom Brady told WEEI on Monday. “This game is going to come down to who plays the best. We’€™ll be able to take some things from the game we played and study them and prepare for them. But we’€™ll have different things to do, they’€™ll have different things to do. Their team is different than from when they played us, and we’€™re pretty different from when we played them.”

With that in mind, here are five reasons why this game will be different:

Rob Gronkowski — Gronkowski was a sizable part of the November game, with seven catches (on 10 targets) for 90 yards and a touchdown. (Brady and Gronkowski celebrated the touchdown in memorable fashion.) However, the tight end suffered a season-ending knee injury two games later. Without Gronkowski — and with the understanding that Julian Edelman is going to remain the primary target in the passing game — if the Patriots are interested in throwing the ball, expect more work for guys like wide receiver Danny Amendola and running back Shane Vereen. With eight catches (on 11 targets) for 60 yards in November against the Broncos, Vereen could have a sizable impact when it comes to replacing the targets that went to Gronkowski in the first meeting. While tight ends Michael Hoomanwanui and Matthew Mulligan also will work as needed in the passing game, their real impact will be felt as blockers who will try to bring the same level of oomph to the run game that Gronkowski has been able to deliver as a blocker.

Julius Thomas — Denver’s lead target at tight end was out of the November game because of a knee injury, and while he doesn’t necessarily bring the thunder like Gronkowski, he emerged as a steady and dependable target with 65 catches for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns in the regular season. Thomas is an intriguing prospect on a number of levels, and will present a challenge for the Patriots on Sunday. One thing to keep in mind — the Patriots appear to be a little better equipped to deal with Thomas this time, as the emergence of rookie linebacker Jamie Collins in the divisional playoff win over the Colts could mean good things for the New England defense.

Cold — It’s expected to be far warmer this time. The November game was the coldest of the season for the Patriots, with the temperature at 22 degrees at kickoff. According to weather.com, the forecast for Sunday in Denver calls for a high of 58 degrees with a low of 36. (Actually, it could be one of the warmest postseason games New England has ever played in the Brady/Belichick era. Last week set a home record for playoff temperature in the Brady/Belichick era, as the temperature at kickoff was 57 degrees.) As a result, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the game plan was tweaked accordingly. That could mean less running and more chances to throw the ball for both teams.

Dont’a Hightower — The second half of the November game represented a personal low point for the second-year linebacker out of Alabama. He wasn’t on the field down the stretch, and was a non-factor for most of the night, finishing with three tackles (one solo). Part of that was scheme-based, but there also was the fact that Hightower was going through a difficult stretch. By his own admission, he was trying to do too much, and, as a result, getting outside his comfort zone. He appeared to be in a much better place in the divisional playoffs against the Colts, when he had a team-high eight tackles (three solo), with one interception and one pass defensed in the win. In addition, he played every defensive snap for just the second time all season.

LeGarrette Blount — The big back played just two snaps in that November win over the Broncos. He carried the ball twice but fumbled on his second rushing attempt and was benched the rest of the way. The Patriots didn’t run the ball all that much against the Broncos in November, but the distribution of snaps is interesting, and far different than any other game the Patriots have had all season. (Brandon Bolden had 13 carries for 58 yards, Shane Vereen had 10 carries for 31 yards, Stevan Ridley had four carries for 14 yards and Blount had two carries for 13 yards.) It was in the midst of a stretch in which the running game was in a state of flux — Blount had yet to fully emerge as the force he would become, while Vereen was working his way back up to speed after spending most of the year on the shelf because of a knee injury, and Ridley was in and out of the doghouse because of a ball-security issue.) Now, Blount is perhaps the most trusted offensive option the Patriots have. Over the last three games he has almost as many rushing yards (431) as Brady has passing yards (492). Regardless of whether or not the Patriots decide to go pass-first or run-first, figure on Blount getting a lot of touches Sunday afternoon against the Broncos.

Read More: Bill Belichick, Dont'a Hightower, Julius Thomas, LeGarrette Blount
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