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Potential playoff opponents: Broncos 01.01.15 at 3:06 pm ET
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Are we headed for another Brady-Manning showdown this postseason? (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Are we headed for another Brady-Manning showdown this postseason? (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

With the playoff picture set, it’s time to size up the possible postseason opponents for the Patriots. We’ll kick off our series with the Broncos.

The skinny: Denver finished 12-4, and while the Broncos were tied with the Patriots for the best record in the AFC, they lost out on the top seed by way of their Nov. 2 loss to New England at Gillette Stadium. The Broncos opened the year 6-1 (the only blemish came with an overtime loss to the Seahawks in Seattle), but ended up with three losses over the second half of the season, including a 43-21 defeat at the hands of the Patriots. Despite the fact that the Chiefs and Chargers had impressive moments over the course of the 2014 season, the Broncos were never really in any danger when it came to winning their division. Despite an alarming late-season stretch for Manning — he threw twice as many interceptions as touchdowns over the final four games of the regular season, struggled to complete 60 percent of his passes and he had a passer rating of better than 80 just once in that series of games — this is a team that will go as far as their quarterback can take them.

Offense: The Broncos still rise and fall on the shoulders of Manning (66 percent completion rate, 4,727 passing yards, 39 touchdowns, 15 INTs). Despite an occasionally wobbly finish, the veteran quarterback still had a good enough year to finish in the top six in most major passing categories, including yards (fourth), completion percentage (sixth), touchdowns (second), passer rating (101.5) and yards per game (295, fourth). Denver is the only team in the league that had two pass catchers finish the season with 100 or more receptions in wide receivers Demaryius Thomas (111 catches, 1,619 yards, 11 TDs) and Emmanuel Sanders (101 catches, 1,404 yards, 9 TDs). They are ably complemented by wide receiver Wes Welker (49 catches, 464 yards, 2 TDs) and tight end Julius Thomas (43 catches, 489 yards, 12 TDs).

While the Broncos offense is still powered by Manning, they’ve received an unexpected boost of late from running back C.J. Anderson (179 carries, 849 rushing yards, 8 TDs, 4.7 YPC). In the wake of a season-ending injury to Montee Ball, the 5-foot-8, 224-pounder out of Cal has taken over the role of lead back, and rushed for at least 80 yards in five of the last six regular-season games for Denver. (That includes 335 rushing yards in a two-game stretch against the Dolphins and Chiefs in November.) Ultimately, the Broncos like to do just enough running to keep the opposition honest, as they finished in the middle of the pack when it came to their ground game: 15th in rushing yards per game (111.6), 20th in yards per carry (4.0) and 15th in total rushing yards (1,785).

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Read More: 2015 playoffs, Broncos, potential playoff opponents,
10 things you have to know about Broncos-Patriots 11.01.14 at 10:42 am ET
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A successful outing for Nate Solder and the rest of New England's offensive line against Denver's defensive front is absolutely vital for the Patriots on Sunday. (Marc Piscotty/Getty Images)

A successful outing for Nate Solder and the rest of New England’s offensive line against Denver’s defensive front is absolutely vital for the Patriots on Sunday. (Marc Piscotty/Getty Images)

Here’s everything you need to know about Sunday’s contest between the Patriots and Broncos:

Our three favorite matchups on the afternoon (other than the potential Darrelle Revis-Demaryius Thomas showdown, which we detailed here earlier in the week):

1. Broncos front seven against the Patriots offensive line: This is what’s going to decide the afternoon. Can the New England front, which has played well over the last few games, hold off Denver’s defensive front, which includes edge rushers Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and massive defensive tackle Terrance Knighton? The grouping, which welcomed center Bryan Stork and guard Dan Connolly back last week, appears to be hitting something close to a stride. (Last Sunday marked the first game in over a year where quarterback Tom Brady wasn’t sacked.) But at the same time, the line will face its sternest test of the year against a Broncos defense that is equally talented at getting after the passer (sixth in the league with 23 sacks), as well as stopping the run (best in the NFL with an average of 72.4 rushing yards per game allowed). While the personnel has been different, one of the things the Patriots have done in the past against a Jack Del Rio defense that has — usually — brought them success was to open five-wide and spread things out, and put an emphasis on getting the ball out as fast as possible. That would negate the pass rush, and put some pressure on the Denver linebackers in coverage in some shorter and intermediate routes against the likes of Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen and Julian Edelman. (A winnable matchup for New England against the Broncos, as Denver is without its’ best coverage linebacker in Danny Travathan.)

2. Safety T.J. Ward against tight end Rob Gronkowski: This won’t be an exclusive matchup — the Broncos will likely throw multiple bodies, including defensive backs and linebackers at Gronkowski in hopes of limiting his overall impact. But, this is the one-on-one showdown that could produce some drama for a few reasons, not the least of which it was Ward who went low on Gronk last year, delivering the blow that knocked out the tight end for the season. Gronkowski was very matter-of-fact when he said Ward hadn’t reached out to him since the hit, while Ward was similarly plainspoken about what went down, telling the Boston Globe, “€œI feel bad he got hurt, you know, but that’€™s about it.” In short, it’s going to take a village to try and bring down Gronkowski, who has put together an impressive four-game stretch where he’s had 27 catches for 411 yards and four touchdowns. That includes an average of almost 10 targets a game, a sizable bump after averaging five targets per game in Weeks 2 through 4. While there will be other options who will mix in and out of the passing game over the course of the afternoon, the fortunes of the Patriots’ passing game will rise and fall on the shoulders of Gronkowski. (For what it’s worth, the Broncos have some experience this year when it comes to slowing elite tight ends. San Diego’s Antonio Gates had five catches for 54 yards, two touchdowns, but San Francisco’s Vernon Davis was held to two catches for 21 yards and Kansas City’s Travis Kelce had four catches for 81 yards. All three weren’t exactly silenced when they faced the Broncos, but all ended up with stat lines well below their season average.)

3. Tight end Julius Thomas against linebacker Jamie Collins and cornerback Brandon Browner: Like the Broncos attempts to try and slow down Gronkowski, it will take multiple defenders to slow Thomas, who is the most challenging offensive option for New England going into this one. If you’€™re the Patriots, you feel good about your chances when it comes to a Darrelle Revis-Demaryius Thomas matchup, as well as Kyle Arrington-Wes Welker in the slot. Depending on the health of Alfonzo Dennard’s shoulder, a Dennard-Emmanuel Sanders matchup is dicey, but things really get tough when you’re talking about Thomas. Collins would usually draw the matchup, but he failed miserably in last year’s AFC title game when he went head-to-head with Thomas, and has struggled for portions of the 2014 season as well. That brings us to Browner, a bigger and more physical corner who might have the size needed to match up with Thomas, but could also be deployed in other areas. (Newcomer Jonathan Casillas could also see some time working against Thomas as well.) Regardless of who is lined up opposite him, Thomas (30 catches, 327 yards and nine TDs) is an imposing threat on a number of levels, including in the red zone, where the 6-foot-5, 250-pounder has become Peyton Manning‘s preferred weapon of choice.

4. Under the radar opponent who Patriots’ fans need to know: We included him in our list of relatively unheralded guys who could have an impact on this game, but in truth, Denver cornerback Chris Harris, Jr. deserves more love on the national scale than he’s been getting this year. Known primarily as the cornerback opposite Aqib Talib, he’s evolved into an impressive defender in his own right. The 5-foot-10, 188-pounder, who had his left ACL fixed in February, has 11 pass breakups and two interceptions, and he has teamed with Talib to form one of the more impressive cornerback duos in the league over the first half of the season. It’s debatable who he could end up facing (Brandon LaFell?), but will likely be called upon to play a major role in trying to slow down the New England passing game on Sunday.

5. By the numbers: (tie) — (via Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders) Manning on 10 days rest: 10-1 record, 68.8 completion percentage, 8.23 YPA, 21 TD, 4 INT, 108.8 passer rating
— (via Brady vs. defenses led by Denver DC Jack Del Rio: 7-1 record, 71.4 completion percentage, 18 TDs, 0 INTs. Teams average 28 points per game.
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Broncos Super Bowl swag headed to Africa 06.02.14 at 1:47 pm ET
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It’s become a rite of passage for each team that ends up losing the Super Bowl — the championship swag it would have been sporting on the field after the game ends up getting sent to a part of the world that needs clothing. It happened with the Patriots on a couple of occasions (including the nearly perfect 2007 team). On Monday, it happened to the 2013 Broncos. (H/T @adampaulcooper, @WorldVision and @arrowheadpride).


Read More: Broncos, Patriots, Schadenfreude, welcome to the offseason
Patriots rushing attack in red zone will be key against Broncos 01.15.14 at 6:28 pm ET
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FOXBORO — When looking into what the Patriots’€™ game plan may be come Sunday afternoon in Denver for the AFC championship game, much has been made of the Patriots€™ running attack and just how much they will run the ball.

Over the past three weeks the Patriots have ran the ball 123 times, averaging 41 rushes per game, something very un-Patriot like in the past few years. But, with the temperatures in Denver expected in the 50s at kickoff and a Denver secondary without star cornerback Chris Harris, maybe the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady will try and take advantage with more of a passing attack.

Regardless of their offensive game plan, once the Patriots get inside the red zone they will need to have an effective running game.

It’€™s clear the Patriots offense misses tight end Rob Gronkowski as once they get inside the opponents 20-yard line, in the seven games he played, the Patriots had a 69 percent (22-of-32) touchdown success rate in the red zone, compared to 49 percent (19-of-39) in the 10 games (postseason included) without him. But, in the last three games where the Patriots have piled up 545 yards on the ground, they’€™ve had a 69 percent (9-of-13) touchdown success rate in the red zone —  the same as when Gronkowski was in the lineup, and of those nine touchdowns, seven have come on the ground.

One of the biggest reasons for the Patriots’ success in the red zone of late has been LaGarrette Blount, who has rushed for 431 yards (6.7-yard average) and eight touchdowns in the last three games, including five coming from inside the red zone.

“€œThe offense is definitely clicking at the right time of the year,” Blount said. ‘€œThis is the time we need to get hot. This is the time we need to stay hot. With me, Stevan [Ridley], [Shane] Vereen and [Brandon] Bolden, all of us are productive backs and we bring something different to the table. They have just been trying to get the ball in my hand just a little bit more.”

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Read More: Broncos, LaGarrette Blount, Patriots, Rob Gronkowski
Patriots playoff mash Wednesday at 12:02 pm ET
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FOXBORO — The expanded media presence at Gillette Stadium signifies the hype surrounding this Sunday’s AFC Championship Game between the Patriots and the Broncos. Add in the fact that it’s Tom Brady and Peyton Manning‘s 15th career game against one another, Wes Welker playing against his former team and former Patriots cornerback Marquice Cole signing with Denver on Tuesday, the story lines are endless and the hype is real.

Here are a few quick links as of Wednesday at Noon:

Read More: AFC Championship, Broncos, Patriots,
WEEI NFL Power Rankings, playoff edition: Patriots enter at No. 5 01.02.14 at 10:55 am ET
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Fittingly, the Seahawks end the regular season where they spent most of it, at the top of the WEEI NFL Power Rankings. The Pete Carroll-led Hawks have ensured that they’ll be playing any and all NFC playoff games in Seattle, a place where they’ve lost just once over the last two years.

The Niners cling to the No. 2 seed as they prepare to take on a Packers team they’ve been successful against in their prior two meetings. The Panthers (3), Broncos (4) and Patriots (5) round out the top five playoff teams.

As wild card weekend approaches, keep in mind that the last three Super Bowl champions played in the first round of the playoffs. If history has taught us anything, any team that has reached the postseason has a shot at the title. We’re in for another exciting year of postseason football. Let the games begin.

1. (1) Seahawks (13-3) — If defense wins championships, the Seahawks have the best shot at hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February. The Seahawks finished the regular season at the top of many defensive categories, including points allowed, passing yards and takeaways.

 2. (2) 49ers (12-4) — A tough road lies ahead for the Niners, who look to return to the Super Bowl. They’ll most likely have to travel to Green Bay, Carolina and Seattle to get to where they want to go.

3. (3) Panthers (12-4) — Carolina brings one of the league’s best defenses into the playoffs. The Panthers’ ferocious D sacked opposing QBs a league-high 60 times.

 4. (4) Broncos (13-3) — The precision and methodical offensive attack Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense deliver makes them the favorite in the AFC. Denver set an NFL record with 606 points scored, averaging almost 40 points per game.

 5. (5) Patriots (12-4) — The Patriots are the experienced veteran team in the AFC that no one wants to play. With the number of key injuries this team has suffered, Bill Belichick deserves to be named Coach of the Year.

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Read More: Bengals, Bill Belichick, Broncos, Drew Brees
WEEI NFL Power Rankings, Week 14: Patriots jump to No. 3 12.03.13 at 10:44 am ET
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The dominance continues. Seattle’s reign atop the WEEI NFL Power Rankings has reached its seventh straight week. The Seahawks look like a lock to play in New Jersey in Super Bowl XLVIII.

The Panthers (2), Patriots (3) and Broncos (4) all inch one spot closer while the Saints drop out of the top five after being absolutely dismantled in Seattle. New Orleans won’t have much time to think about the loss because the red-hot Panthers are next on the schedule in a battle for the NFC South.

As the regular season draws closer to an end, we’ll see more teams officially eliminated from the playoffs. It looks like at least five playoff teams from 2012 won’t make a return trip in 2013. The Packers (20), Vikings (27), Redskins (28, already eliminated) Falcons (29) and Texans (32) have not lived up to expectations.

1. (1) Seahawks (11-1) – Good luck to any NFC team that has to go through Seattle to reach the Super Bowl. Russell Wilson hasn’t lost at CenturyLink Field and is 22-6 since becoming the starting QB last year.

2. (3) Panthers (9-3) — Owners of eight straight wins, the Panthers and their highly ranked defense will take on the Saints on Sunday night.

3. (4) Patriots (9-3) — As usual, the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady-led Patriots get stronger and better as the season shifts to November and December. They are one win and one Miami loss away from wrapping up their 11th division title in 13 seasons.

4. (5) Broncos (10-2) — The road to the Super Bowl in the AFC will go through Denver. The Broncos’ remaining opponents have a combined 16-32 record. None of the four teams they will face have a record over .500. 

5. (6) 49ers (8-4) — The injuries on the offensive line combined with the inconsistency of the run game over the past two weeks are a concern heading into Sunday’s game against the Seahawks.

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Read More: Broncos, NFL Power Rankings, Patriots, Peyton Manning
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