Assuming you've tuned in at all this week to the talking heads on sports radio or the national pundits on one of a dozen TV shows dedicated to analyzing and dissecting every spec of Championship weekend in the NFL, one theme has been pervasive throughout: Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning.
As is usually the case when these two quarterbacks share the field though, the conversation goes well beyond the scope of what each quarterback will do on Sunday. It is now impossible to have a Brady-Manning matchup-especially in the postseason- without the subject matter of each player's respective "legacy" rearing its ugly head. Even after 14 games between Brady and Manning's teams (notice the distinction), the football faithful refuse to let the games happen in a vacuum. Every subsequent contest is somehow meant to tip the scales of quarterbacking accomplishment in either Brady or Manning's favor. But when you can watch two eventual first ballot Hall of Famers and undeniable top-5 QB's of all time go head to head as often as these two have, you realize that the incessant resume stacking isn't such a bad problem to have after all.
However you look at it though, the Brady vs. Manning side plot doesn't constitute a matchup. It's hype. It's ticket sales, and advertising, and league branding between two of the most recognizable faces in the country. But as Tom and Peyton both know, and have reiterated to the media as much over and over this week, their performances will have little to no effect on one another. It really comes down to Tom Brady versus the Broncos defense and vice versa. If you think that Brady is losing any sleep tonight over what kind of statistical success Manning may have against his locker room buddies then you just haven't been paying attention.
Let's get to the matchups.
Logan Mankins, Nate Solder vs. Denver D-line
Plenty of people, fans included, saw the Broncos and Patriots meeting in the AFC title game before the season began. Not a huge stretch. But if you knew it would be largely due to the Patriots' "ground and pound", power running approach that has carried the team over the last month or so, then you should be sending your credentials out to general managers and front offices across the league.
Consider the fact that the team's workhorse back over it's last five games has been LeGarrette Blount, a stab in the dark trade chip from Tampa that has exceeded everyone's expectations, and the transformation of New England's offensive identity has been remarkable. A staple of this season's ground game has been diversification. Belichick has said that he believes it is important for a team to be able to run out of a number of different formations, and attack opposing teams' front seven with a variety of different hand-offs, including inside runs, outside runs, draw plays, dives, counters, etc. The big constant has been the success that Patriots backs have had running behind left tackle Nate Solder, and guard Logan Mankins, who just earned yet another pro-bowl nod with his work this season. The two have been the perfect tandem for getting out and plowing lanes for their backs to explode through; Solder is athletic enough to move pass rushing specialists off their spots, and Mankins just gets it done with nastiness.
New England holds a major advantage in this category, as stud linebacker Von Miller won't be there (injured reserve) to meet Patriots' ball carriers on the second level. He had a significant impact in the previous matchup, recording two sacks and pushing Solder into the backfield on a few occasions, as well as scooping up a Stevan Ridley fumble and returning it to the house.
Blount is enjoying a stretch of his career that he may be hard-pressed to duplicate. In his last two games, he has racked up 355 yards and 6 touchdowns. Denver's no slouch against the run though, having ranked seventh in that category during the regular season. Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton is capable of asserting his will and clogging up running lanes', evidenced in a strong performance against San Diego's rushing attack last week.
Bottom line: If the Patriots can't run the ball with at least modest success early, it's over. Without a big bodied tight end who serves as a real threat in the passing game and smaller wide receivers who can get pushed around at the top of their routes, the Patriots rely heavily on opening up the field with play-action. If Denver's safeties don't bite when Tom turns around to hand it off, the onus will be on Brady throwing outside the numbers and having a lot of attempts. A high-scoring shootout on the road against the most prolific regular season aerial attack of all time is just not where Pats fans want this thing to go.
Denver pass catchers vs. NE corners
Denver boasts the most complete and well-balanced group of pass-catchers in the NFL. Their best receiver- Demaryius Thomas- is a quarterback's best friend. Thomas is a dynamic down-field threat who has the speed to beat teams deep, and the size, at 6'3", to go up and compete for the ball in mid-air. He's far from a one trick pony though, as Denver loves setting him up on bubble screens and allowing him to get into the open field. Belichick usually comes up with a few different coverage schemes for players as talented as Thomas, but don't count on him over thinking it. The Patriots went out last year and traded for Aqib Talib for this very reason. Since then, aside from missing some time due to injury, Talib has been everything they had hoped for and more. At his best, Talib has the grit and athleticism to take an opposing team's best weapon completely out of the game. His shutdown jobs on stars A.J Green and Jimmy Graham illustrate why he will command top dollar on the open market this offseason. He wasn't perfect; he got torched by Browns' freak wideout Josh Gordon and had a forgettable day against Steve Smith, but as close to 100 percent as he's been all season, Talib is the single most important Patriots defender in this game.
In fact, it's not a stretch to say that the Thomas/Talib matchup is the biggest X-factor in the entire game. Consider this: In the Broncos' 13 wins this regular season, Thomas posted an average of six catches and 94 yards. In their three losses, he put up just four receptions for 56 yards. Thomas is like a final exam in a lecture course- take care of him and you're in good shape.
The Patriots' secondary will throw in a few new zone coverage wrinkles and try to get Peyton tap-dancing in the pocket as he's been prone to do. The trick in this area is balance; if you give a great quarterback like Manning or Brady too much zone, they'll find the soft spots and tear it to shreds. But line up in man-to-man the whole game, and Manning will assess the advantages and throw his receivers open. Expect most of the Patriots' looks to come as man coverage in a nickel defensive set. Belichick isn't known to get blitz crazy, and with Manning's accuracy and weapons, keeping safety Devin McCourty over the top will be a priority for most of the game.
The rest of the matchups won't be so black and white, but they'll probably look something like this: Dennard on Decker, Arrington on Welker (gulp), and Jamie Collins on tight end Julius Thomas. As good as Collins was last week against Coby Fleener, Thomas is a different breed. He's been a revelation for Denver this year, turning in his first healthy season as a pro and making the pro-bowl despite playing with a stacked group of receivers. The Patriots will try to chip Thomas at the line of scrimmage and give Collins safety help in matching up with the athletic tight end.
Bottom line: This should be really fun to watch. Unlike the last time these teams got together, these opposing groups are essentially both at full strength. The Patriots want this game to be as loosely officiated as possible. If they are allowed to get hands on Denver's receivers, disrupt their timing with Manning and make plays on the ball, New England's secondary is capable of keeping this group in check.
Golden boy vs. banged up Broncos secondary
Both of these teams will run the ball effectively on Sunday. For New England, it's become their calling card with the injuries to Gronk and the rookie receivers. For Denver, having any hopes of slowing down Manning has meant a lighter box with five and six defensive backs, opening the door for Knowshon Moreno to run wild. In the first matchup between these two teams, Belichick was happy to concede chunks on the ground if it meant stifling Peyton on critical throwing downs. I don't think he expected Moreno to churn out 224 yards, averaging 6.1 per though. But several factors have changed since then: New England's run defense has been revitalized by the emergence of tackle Sealver Siliga, who just offers way more bulk up the middle than either Chirs Jones or Joe Vellano. Secondly, the first game took place inside a frigid Gillette Stadium, and Peyton's struggles in below-frigid temperatures are well documented. Sunday's game offers a forecast of close to 60 degrees, with little to no wind and a 0 percent chance of precipitation.
If the running games are a wash, it will come down to Brady and his cast of overachieving wideouts versus a potentially vulnerable Broncos back end.
Like New England, the Broncos use a man heavy scheme, but also rely more heavily on creative blitz concepts. Denver's number two cover corner, Chris Harris, went down in last week's game with a torn ACL and is out for the year. That is an extremely fortuitous bounce for Brady. Champ Bailey is a face we didn't see last time. He missed big chunks of the season due to injury and has been relegated to a nickel corner, but he still has the instincts and ball skills to annoy Danny Amendola in the slot.
In the last matchup, Brady targeted Broncos safety Quentin Jammer and fill-in Kayvon Webster with some success. Ordinarily, if given time to stand in the pocket and throw, Brady would feast on a secondary of this caliber. But given his meager selection of options outside of Julian Edelman, this looks to be a "famine vs. famine" battle.
Bottom line: New England isn't built to play from behind and Denver's defense isn't built to play with the lead. On Sunday, Philip Rivers picked them apart for 197 yards in the second half in the comeback that almost was. If the game comes down to Brady making a few key throws at the end, I wouldn't bet against him.
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