It’s a whole new ballgame in Denver; unlike in the regular-season meeting, Peyton Manning and Julian Edelman will be there for Broncos-Patriots. Meanwhile, the NFC title game features two very different offenses: Carolina’s multi-faceted ground game and Arizona’s aerial attack
No. 2 New England Patriots (13-4) at No. 1 Denver Broncos (13-4)
Patriots offense vs. Broncos defense
With Julian Edelman back, it’s a completely different Patriots offense than the one Denver saw on a snowy November evening in Week 12. In that game, the Patriots attempted to use their usual man coverage-beating tactics, with Keshawn Martin executing Edelman’s presnap motions, stack releases and shallow option routes. It was plain to see that Martin is no Edelman. Tom Brady targeted him only once that whole game.
So who matches up to Edelman, and how? To answer that, the Broncos first must decide what to do against Rob Gronkowski. In that last meeting they often guarded him with a safety, including when he was split out wide. The Patriots have split Gronk wide more often this season because it distorts all sorts of defensive coverage rules. In zone, it can leave cornerbacks on Gronk, meaning linebackers must guard wide receivers inside. In man, it forces safeties to act as cornerbacks, which is hard enough as it is, let alone against the league’s best tight end.
If they go man-to-man across the board, it would behoove them to put Aqib Talib on the All-World tight end. Talib is lanky and, though not quick by star corner standards, he’s quicker than Gronkowski. The problem, however, is when Gronk aligns on the line of scrimmage, Talib would have to follow him into the box. The Patriots would be all too eager to run the ball there.
So maybe Talib takes Gronk only when he aligns in the slot or out wide. That would allow corner Chris Harris to take Julian Edelman in the slot and Bradley Roby to take the next best receiver (in most formations, that’s Danny Amendola). Playing man-to-man is precarious against the Patriots because of all the picks and rubs in their short-area passing game. But a way to defend picks is to switch the coverage assignments on the fly when the receivers crisscross, much like defenders do in basketball. As the Steelers learned last Sunday, Harris and Roby are exceptionally good at this.
The danger comes when Edelman’s pick routes involve not another wide receiver, but instead a running back or tight end. That leaves Harris executing the switch with a linebacker or safety. Linebackers and safeties generally aren’t capable of making deft coverage switches. Denver’s backers, Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall, are more agile than most, but they’d be switching onto one of the league’s quickest receivers.
To avoid switch coverages altogether, the Broncos could just play zone. They’ve done more of this as the season has progressed, with mostly positive results. The downside? The mismatches that a defense fears from pick routes, with linebackers taking wide receivers inside, are inherent with zone. If Edelman aligns on the inside slot in trips and a running back or tight end aligns outside of him, Edelman would be assured of working against Trevathan or Marshall.
Perhaps the answer is a hybrid approach, with the Broncos mixing and matching zone and man principles based on the formation. They’re talented enough to spar with a high-powered offense this way, though defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has become sensitive to overtaxing his secondary before the snap. (Running all over the formation is more exhausting for a corner than just playing on the same side over and over.) Plus the Patriots’ fast tempo presents difficulties here.
What we know for sure: The battle with Gronk and Edelman will decide the game. With injuries wounding their backfield and hindering their offensive line, the Patriots have a below average ground game that Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels are wont to completely ignore for long stretches. (They threw the ball on 13 of their first 14 snaps against the Broncos in Week 12 and on 25 of their first 27 snaps last week against the Chiefs.) And through the air, the battle will be decided quickly off the snap, as Brady, playing behind an erratic O-line and against the likes of Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson, will have to get the ball out in a hurry.
Broncos offense vs. Patriots defense It’s billed as Brady v Manning XVII, but in Gary Kubiak’s system it will be Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson v Patriots Front Seven II. In Hillman-Anderson v Pats Front Seven I, the battle went to Hillman and Anderson. They combined for 172 yards on 29 attempts and two crucial touchdowns: a 19-yard sweep to the right in the second quarter (Hillman) and a 48-yarder on the same sweep, this time to the left, to win the game in overtime (Anderson).
It’s difficult to consistently turn the corner against New England’s run defense. End Rob Ninkovich is fantastic at setting the edge, and the nimble Chandler Jones is tremendous with adjustments as a playside defender. That doesn’t mean Denver shouldn’t make the running game its focal point; it just means Denver needs to be balanced by also running inside, even if those runs don’t always work. New England is formidable here, as well, particularly against zone blocking, which Kubiak’s scheme features. The Patriots present a lot of different D-line configurations, and they almost always have inside linebackers Dont’a Hightower or Jamie Collins immediately fire into a run gap on the front side of zone runs, blowing up the O-line’s continuity and forcing a runner to cut back before he wants.
That said, the Patriots, though fundamentally sound and schematically cunning, are not impossible to run against. Their rushing D ranked ninth overall and 11th in yards per attempt allowed this season. In this, their 18th game of the season, playing on the road at altitude, they must be challenged for all four quarters, in an effort to wear them down late.
They must also be challenged on the ground because the Broncos lack the resources to dissect this defense through the air. In Week 12 Brock Osweiler’s first 11 targets to Demaryius Thomas were incomplete (including an interception). Corner Logan Ryan, who always shadows the opponent’s biggest wideout, stifled Thomas. Pro Bowler Malcolm Butler, who takes the opponent’s quickest receiver, matches up well to Emmanuel Sanders. In the last meeting Sanders did beat Butler with speed a few times, finishing with 113 yards receiving. The guess here: The Patriots will try their luck with this matchup again, knowing that because they’re not a super blitz-heavy team, they’ll have two spare defenders to use for double-teams downfield.
Regarding the blitzing, it’s worth asking: Just how much of it will the Patriots do? In Week 12 they were more aggressive than usual here, killing the Broncos with delayed inside linebacker rushes behind condensed D-lines that had both ends shaded over the guards and a nose tackle lined up directly over the center. The Patriots clearly saw something on film that told them Denver’s protection rules did not have an answer for this.
The Broncos have since had time to correct this, plus it’s Peyton Manning conducting the offense, not a 25-year-old making his second NFL start. So will the Patriots bring a new form of inside pressure (and it would almost certainly be inside, in Manning’s line of vision)? Or will they just sit back in their usual base matchup coverages and hope to out-execute this offense?
OVERALL ADVANTAGE: PATRIOTS
No. 2 Arizona Cardinals (14-3) at No. 1 Carolina Panthers (16-1)
Cardinals offense vs. Panthers defense
You know what you’re getting from Carolina: a steady dose of straight zone coverage. On early downs, it’s usually zone with one safety back deep (Kurt Coleman) and the other (Roman Harper) creeping down near the box. (This is known as Cover 3.) In passing situations, both safeties will be back and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly will run with any receivers streaking down the middle of the field (known as Tampa 2).
It’d be a shock if the Panthers deviated much from this. Those who watched the Divisional Round closely may have noticed that they did actually deviate here, bringing corner and slot blitzes against Seattle—and not just on third downs. But that was a tactic based specifically for Russell Wilson. Against mobile QBs, Ron Rivera and coordinator Sean McDermott believe in bringing edge blitzers because those blitzers serve as extra defenders against read-option. Plus, on passing downs, blitzing Wilson from the outside is a way to keep him in the pocket.
You don’t want Carson Palmer in the pocket. The Panthers have a deep, dynamic D-line, starting in the middle with Kawann Short. The Cardinals have a decent—but only decent—O-line, which can be prone to individual breakdowns in protection. Carolina’s best course is to attack Palmer with a four-man rush.
That Cardinals O-line shoulders a heavy burden with Bruce Arians’ system using more empty-backfield formations than any in the NFC. In empty, all five eligible receivers run routes, leaving the five O-linemen to fend for themselves in one-on-one blocking. The Seahawks used empty a lot in the Divisional Round. In these instances, the Panthers played straight Quarters coverage—a matchup zone where each of the four defensive backs are responsible for one-fourth of the field. We may not see that this week, however. Seattle’s empty sets are spread out and balanced, with quick throws. Arizona’s empty sets are more diverse, presenting a variety of receiver alignments and deeper route combinations (hence the burden on the O-line).
From these alignments—really, all alignments—the Cardinals are the very best at intertwining receivers’ routes at the 12-18-yard range. They’ll do this on one side of the field and employ deep routes on the other. It’s an aerial attack that forces all seven pass defenders to process multiple items and constantly adjust on the fly. The Panthers played more man coverage than usual for certain stretches this season, but mostly against subpar offenses. This secondary is not experienced enough in man-to-man (or, frankly, talented enough) to play meaningful snaps of it against a crisscrossing assault like Arizona’s. Arians and Palmer know to expect zone coverage. Being a predictable defense against a smart, aggressive play-caller and quarterback is always precarious.
Panthers offense vs. Cardinals defense We must analyze the last meeting between these teams with a grain of salt; in the 2014 Wild-Card round, Cam Newton had not yet blossomed into the superstar he is now and the Cardinals defense was a little more dynamic this it is today. Both these things should be taken into consideration, though not too much. At the heart of it all, Carolina remains a run-based offense, and one would expect that to be the case against an Arizona defense that’s fast, versatile and aggressive out of its passing down sub-packages. The Cardinals secondary is proficient in man coverage and in its foundational matchup zones (which often play out like man-to-man coverage, particularly against offenses that run seam routes as often as Carolina does).
Last time, Patrick Peterson shadowed Kelvin Benjamin, holding him to four mostly meaningless catches. Benjamin, of course, is not part of the equation this time around (training-camp ACL tear). It will be interesting to see whether Peterson shadows any particular receiver or just plays various assignments based on the situation. The latter of these options seems the most enticing given that the receiver Peterson would likely shadow, Philly Brown, is not worth using your best player against on every snap.
However the matchups shake out, the game hinges on Carolina’s ability to run the ball. In last year’s Wild-Card game they did so 41 times for 188 yards. Having the most diverse, multifaceted rushing attack in football, the Panthers force a defensive front seven (or, given all the heavy formations Carolina uses, a defensive front eight) to play with extreme gap discipline and patience. And sometimes even that isn’t enough. Mike Tolbert and Cam Newton can beat good defense with their physicality. Jonathan Stewart can beat good defense with that plus his always-surprising short-area elusiveness.
To combat the run, expect the Cardinals to tighten their defensive line, putting both defensive ends over the guards, a nose tackle over undersized center Ryan Kalil and both outside linebackers walked down over the offensive tackles and tight ends. This forms a 5-2 front. Clever as Carolina’s option-heavy scheme is, there will be several instances in which their run-blockers must simply win fistfights in the trenches.
OVERALL ADVANTAGE: CARDINALS