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Ten things you have to know about Patriots-Broncos

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.

10. Prediction:



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