When the Patriots (13-4) have the ball
There's a lot more to this matchup than the quarterback positions, despite the broadcast hysteria all week about the QBs. Still, they deserve to be a focal point - not the only one, though.
Tom Brady (12) is the master of these situations, in his 10th AFC title game, seeking an astounding seventh Super Bowl appearance. As he displayed in last week's win over Kansas City, his ankle is little or no issue, and when given time - as a timid Chiefs defense afforded him - he'll pick you apart.
He certainly has the weapons now that WRs Julian Edelman (11) and Danny Amendola (80), plus All-Pro TE Rob Gronkowski (87), are healthier. Brady is going to throw often against the NFL's top-ranked defense, and it will be up to everyone on all three levels for Denver to step up. Be aggressive or be gone.
The biggest onus will fall on pass rushers DeMarcus Ware (94), Von Miller (58) and Derek Wolfe (95), plus whatever schemes coordinator Wade Phillips designs to pressure Brady. And pressure the Broncos must. If Brady gets into a comfort zone, not even having such staunch defenders as CBs Chris Harris Jr. (25) and Aqib Talib (21), LBs Brandon Marshall (54) and Danny Trevathan (59) will be decisive.
What could change the flow of New England's offense is if the oft-jumbled line can't protect Brady. Injuries have plagued that unit all season, with nearly everyone affected. Usually, the best of the bunch are LT Sebastian Vollmer (76) and center Bryan Stork (66).
New England also has played the mix-and-match game at running back. Veteran Steven Jackson (39) came in off the street in December, and combines with Brandon Bolden (38) and James White (28). Don't look for them to be in the spotlight much.
When the Broncos (13-4) have the ball:
Where the Broncos could have an edge is in the running game with C.J. Anderson (22) and Ronnie Hillman (23), and unlike with the Patriots, Denver always tries to establish the ground attack. Not that New England is easy to run against, but Denver must try to lighten the burden on Peyton Manning (18).
Manning has really come through in Denver's past two games, but he's been well-rested for both, considering the foot problems he experienced in the regular season, then getting the wild-card bye. No extra time to recuperate for this showdown with Brady and, more significantly, with a sometimes-overlooked Patriots defense.
New England will be damaged by the absence of injured linebacker Jerod Mayo, and its best LB, Jamie Collins (91) has a back issue. That could be critical in trying to slow the run game.
The Patriots don't have the well-known names in their secondary, other than perhaps S Devin McCourty (32) and Super Bowl hero CB Malcolm Butler (21). If Denver's bunch of WRs led by Demaryius Thomas (88), Emmanuel Sanders (10), plus TEs Owen Daniels (81) and Vernon Davis (80) can remember to hold on to the ball after so many drops against Pittsburgh, they could have success through the air.
Attempting to stop that will be DE Chandler Jones (95), a real force on the pass rush and improved against the run; DEs Ron Ninkovich (50) and Jabaal Sheard (93); and rookie DT Malcom Brown (90). That's a formidable group.
If this one comes down to a late field goal, each side can be confident.
New England has All-Pro K Stephen Gostkowski (3), as strong as he is reliable. He made 33 of 36 FGs and all 52 extra points.
Denver counters with Brandon McManus (8), who hit 30 of 35 field goals, made five last week, and has a longer range than Gostkowski, though not by much.
Denver could be hurt by the loss of kick returner Omar Bolden, but its coverage squads are solid. The Patriots are steady on coverages and returns, but not spectacular.
Gary Kubiak deserves plaudits for taking over a successful team and keeping it on track, particularly with Manning missing six games. Kubiak has Manning buying into a different style than the QB played in Indianapolis and in his previous seasons with the Broncos.
He's allowed Phillips to be creative and aggressive on defense, and it's worked nicely.
Bill Belichick has been forced to dig deep into his roster at nearly every position, but not at quarterback, and that's been a steadying influence. His resume is extraordinary as he, like Brady, seeks a seventh Super Bowl trip.
Give lots of credit to defensive coordinator Matt Patricia for finding the right mix. It's stunning that Patricia hasn't become a head coach yet.
How about these: Manning's likely last shot at the top against Brady's quest for more Super Bowl rings than any starting quarterback?
Or Denver feeling its window of opportunity is open now and not for much longer?
Or New England, particularly its quarterback, wanting to provide the ultimate ''gotcha'' to the league and its investigators in the deflated footballs saga?
Juicy, juicy, juicy.
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