Defense the key in AFC title game
Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady ...
... blah, blah, blah, blah.
We have been told again and again that Brady has the edge, his New England Patriots winning 10 of 14 matchups against Manning, the past two with Manning as a Denver Bronco.
What isn’t talked about is the fact nine of those Brady-Manning contests were in New England, where Brady and the Patriots are virtually bulletproof.
And, as Manning pointed out roughly 30 seconds after the Broncos dispatched the San Diego Chargers 24-17 last week in the second round of the playoffs, today’s AFC title matchup is not two fellas squaring off in an octagon. There will be others on the field.
Let’s assume the two quarterbacks will do just fine. What are some of the other keys to today’s tilt?
This season the Broncos have been the best passing team of all time. The Pats are no slouches, having the seventh-best passing game this season.
Both teams have superb pass blocking, but the Broncos have better receivers. Their Fantastic Four — Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Eric Decker and former Patriot Wes Welker — ranks with any group of receivers ... ever.
The Pats lost outstanding tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and are relegated to two possession receivers, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, and dumpoffs to tailbacks.
New England’s Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels certainly realize the shortcomings and have emphasized the run. Last week, they rushed for 234 yards and six TDs in their win over Indy.
But one thing to keep in mind: The last time these two played, Week 12, the Broncos had a staggering 280 yards on the ground, 224 from Knowshon Moreno.
Neither brings to mind the Steel Curtain, Purple People Eaters or Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense of Da Bears.
Denver is better against the run, fourth, and the Patriots are ranked 15th. The Broncos struggled against the run in Weeks 12-15 after losing linemen Kevin Vickerson and Derek Wolfe, but got back to business the past three games, allowing only 65, 64 and 87 rushing yards.
Against the pass, the Broncos and Pats are similarly ineffective in coverage, New England ranked 20th, Denver 21st.
There is a huge difference in the pass rush, however, where the Broncos are ranked 11th, the Patriots only 30th. The Patriots have more sacks than Denver at 51-45, but the Broncos have 270 quarterback hurries, the Patriots only 178.
A huge difference could be in Denver losing starting cornerback Chris Harris to a knee injury last week. Someone, Champ Bailey, Quentin Jammer, Tony Carter or Kayvon Webster, is going to have to step in and keep Brady from posting ridiculous numbers on the side opposite Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
Advantage Denver, Denver and Denver, especially in Denver.
Matt Prater will assure the Patriots start at their 20 on every possession.
Trindon Holliday has a kick and punt return for a TD this season and had a kick return for a touchdown called back last week.
Decker, in a rare punt return role because of his sure hands in a nasty wind, had a touchdown foiled when he stumbled in the open field.
Prater also happens to have the NFL record with a 64-yard field goal. A halftime-ending or game-winning field goal in the expected spring-like weather is not out of the question for Prater.
Penalties, rather the lack thereof, is one advantage New England has on every NFL team.
They have fewer penalties called on them both offensively and defensively than any other team, and in only one game, Week 4 against Atlanta, have the Pats had more penalties than the opponent.
New England has had two games in which it was not called for a penalty, another in which it was only called once, and two more in which the Pats were penalized only three times.
The Broncos aren’t too shabby on the offensive side of the ball in terms of penalties being called against opponents, ranking third. Defensively, however, they rank near the bottom of the league, ranking only 25th.
Simply put, don’t depend on the Pats to make stupid mistakes on either side of the ball.
Calls against Denver’s defense have haunted them all season, with the Broncos giving first downs to the opposition 41 times in the regular season, almost three times per game.
And in the end
Keys are held by Denver’s defense. Will it be able to slow the Pats’ rushing? Will someone, anyone, step up for Chris Harris on that left corner?
I’ll take my 14-3 record and say it all somehow works out.
The Broncos will punt only twice and get sweet revenge, 37-31, setting up a little road trip to New York.
Rick Jussel is a former Daily Sentinel sports editor (think Dark Ages) and Grand Junction High School journalism teacher who belongs in the Armchair Quarterback Hall of Fame, if only there was one.