For the third straight season, the New England Patriots are back in a position where they want to be: a win away from the Super Bowl. The Patriots were able to take care of business last Saturday night in a 43-22 win over the Indianapolis Colts. They were able to win in an unconventional Patriot way. LeGarrette Blount ran for four touchdowns and New England didn't even get one touchdown from Tom Brady.
Plus, the defense made some big plays by forcing Andrew Luck into four interceptions. One of the standouts from this game was rookie linebacker Jamie Collins. Collins had a sack, an interception, and did a good job covering Colts' tight end Coby Fleener. Now, it's time for the matchup that every Patriot fan has been waiting for since August.
The Denver Broncos got a huge monkey off of their back last week in a 24-17 win over the San Diego Chargers. Denver dominated the game thru three quarters with their time of possession attack on offense and four sacks of Philip Rivers on defense. It was especially important for quarterback Peyton Manning considering they were eliminated one year ago last Sunday.
Denver and New England faced each other back in Week 12. In that game, the Broncos jumped out to a 24-0 lead at halftime. The 2nd half was a different story, as the Patriots rallied back to win 34-31 in overtime. Can Wes Welker send his old team home and make his third trip to the Super Bowl? For the Broncos, they did have a serious injury occur last week as cornerback Chris Harris tore his ACL. They added former Patriots' cornerback Marquise Cole earlier this week. Will the 15th installment of Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning brings us another classic? Who will add to their legacy considering both quarterbacks are already top 5 all-time?
Here are my five keys to Sunday's game (3:00 ET, CBS) in Denver:
1. A Tight End Returns: When you read this, you probably were thinking there's no way that Rob Gronkowski is back this week for the Patriots and you're right. The tight end that is back for the Broncos that wasn't there in the Week 12 meeting is Julius Thomas. Thomas was unknown coming into the season, but he has emerged into one of Manning's favorite targets. Thomas has 5+ catches in four of his last five games, including six catches for 76 yards against the Chargers. He had 12 touchdowns during the season as well. He is a key to this game because the Patriots will likely have to match up against him with a linebacker. Rookie Jamie Collins will try to duplicate his solid performance from last week.
2. Sacks With Shaun: Back in Week 12, the Broncos were able to get three sacks on Tom Brady. However, two of those sacks came from Von Miller, who will not be playing this Sunday. The Patriots' offensive line needs to keep an eye on Shaun Phillips. Phillips had two sacks against his former team last week and has three sacks in his last three games. Phillips had 10 sacks on the season. As far as the Patriots' pass rush goes, they need to at least get pressure on Peyton Manning. Last week, the Chargers were barely able to get near #18. The key will be Chandler Jones, since Jones was the only Patriot to have a sack in the Week 12 matchup.
3. A Secondary Running Game: Both the Broncos and the Patriots did a solid job of pounding the rock in their divisional round wins last week. In Week 12, Knowshon Moreno ran for 224 yards on 37 carries. It is unlikely Moreno will duplicate that performance, but he did have 23 carries for 82 yards and a touchdown last week. LeGarrette Blount only had 13 yards and a fumble in the first matchup, but has surged onto the scene since that game. I think both running backs will put up good games in this one. My spotlight is on the teams' number two running backs. Those two guys are Montee Ball and Stevan Ridley. Ridley had two touchdowns last week vs. the Colts and has seemed to fix the fumbling problems (4 fumbles this season) that plagued him in the first meeting with Denver. As for Ball, he is averaging 4.7 yards per carry, but has lost three fumbles this season. With the quarterbacks as evenly matched as they come, this game will come down to turnovers. These are the two running backs that could put the ball on the ground and set up great field position for the opposing offense.
4. Good Will Punting: When you play up in Denver, the altitude is always going to be a factor. This holds true when you talk about the special teams factor. Both teams have outstanding kickers in Stephen Gostkowski for the Patriots and Matt Prater for the Broncos (Prater kicked a 64 yard field goal earlier this year).
However, the Patriots' casualty list went up last week. Punter Ryan Allen injured his shoulder trying to save a touchdown on a high snap. Fortunately, the punt ended up only a safety for the Colts instead of six points. The Patriots did not bring in any punters this week, so that gives the inclination that Allen should be a go this week. Allen had 29 punts inside the 20 this season, which is 10th in the league. The Pats did use Gostkowski on punts last week, but can he handle the pressure of punting in Denver knowing any bad punt gives Peyton Manning great field position? Plus, that would mean Tom Brady would be the holder. In a game as close as this one should be, every factor counts. Yes, even the punters matter this week!
5. At The “Ryan” Time: Against Peyton Manning, a Patriots' defender in past postseasons usually has had to make big plays at the right time. Whether it was Ty Law in 2003 or Asante Samuel in 2006, interceptions are always a big part of these games. It's rare that either of these quarterbacks make a mistake. Keep an eye on rookie cornerback Logan Ryan. Ryan intercepted Manning in the 3rd quarter back in Week 12 during that comeback. He has five interceptions this season. Four of those five interceptions have come in Patriots' wins. Plus, you could see Ryan lined up against Welker at times during this game.
On the Denver side, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has to play a larger role with Chris Harris out. Cromartie injured his shoulder on a hail mary pass in the first meeting before halftime. It will be interesting to see if he can present any problems for Tom Brady in this game.
I went back in the Foxboro Blog Time Machine for this game considering that back in Week 12, I picked the Patriots to lose by double digits (38-27). In my mind, this game is going to be another instant classic between two great quarterbacks. The weather is expected to be 58 degrees in Denver, so it should have no hindrance on the throwing as opposed to the wind back in November. These two teams have separated themselves all season as the two best in the AFC. It comes down to who has the ball last. It wouldn't be a Patriots' season without yet another 4th quarter comeback by Tom Brady. Brady throws a touchdown in the final 30 seconds to Julian Edelman to send the Patriots to their 6th Super Bowl in 13 years.
PATRIOTS 37 BRONCOS 34