3TFO: Patriots @ Broncos, AFC Championship
This Sunday will be the fifteenth game featuring Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, and the third time that the legendary quarterbacks have met in the AFC Championship Game.
Brady holds a 10-4 head to head record against Manning, but the pair has not met in the playoffs since 2006.
With each of these players closer to the end of their careers after so many records being set and broken by both, and a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, this weekend’s game is shaping up to be another classic.
New England Rushing Offense vs. Denver Front Seven
The Patriots’ rushing attack has become the strength of their offense over the past two months, and they seem to be getting better each week. Last week’s effort against the Colts was especially impressive. New England ran for 234 yards, and had nearly twice as many rushing attempts (46) as passes (25).
LeGarrette Blount has emerged as a star, and his timing could not be better on a personal level, as Blount’s contract expires at the end of the season. The former Buccaneer has earned grades of +1.9 or better in each of his past five games, and finished 12th in our Elusive Rating in 2013. Blount also has the advantage of fresh legs after carrying the ball just 153 times this season.
New England’s offensive line also deserves plenty of credit after demolishing the Colts’ defense last week. Logan Mankins’ +3.7 run blocking grade was easily his best of the season, and Nate Solder earned a +2.1 grade in that department. Blount and Stevan Ridley combined for 38 carries and this is likely the game plan against a depleted Broncos defense this week as well.
Defensive tackles Terrance Knighton and Malik Jackson have, very quietly, enjoyed excellent seasons. The duo rank ninth and 12th, respectively, in our cumulative grades among defensive tackles, and they have each been proficient both in run defense as well as pass rushers.
Starting defensive ends Shaun Phillips and Robert Ayers have also excelled in run defense, and Ayers’ +11.1 run defense grade ranks ninth at his position. The line’s battle against the Patriots’ offensive line is a true match of strength vs. strength, and should be one of the best of this contest.
The Broncos’ weakness in run defense, though, can be seen at the linebacker level, where the team badly misses Von Miller’s dominant presence. Both Danny Trevathan and Wesley Woodyard are slightly undersized for their position, and can be pushed around in the run game. Trevathan also missed 11 tackles this year.
Blount and Ridley will shred this defense if they can get to the second level and break tackles, making fundamentals especially important for Denver on Sunday.
Denver Wide Receivers vs. New England Secondary
It is difficult to argue that any team has a better group of receivers than the Broncos. Demaryius Thomas (+21.3) and Eric Decker (+16.9) finished fifth and 11th in our wide receiver grades in 2013, and each player averaged more than 2.0 Yards Per Route Run.
Thomas, Decker and former Patriot Wes Welker each finished in the Top 10 of our Wide Receiver Rating metric; Manning had a QB Rating of 106.7 or better when throwing to each of them. Though his work as a run blocker has been terrible, tight end Julius Thomas has emerged as one of the league’s elite receivers at his position. The third-year player held a 1.81 YPRR, ranking third among tight ends this season. Manning threw for just 132 yards and 3.7 yards per attempt in Week 12; both he and his receivers will be striving for a better performance and result this weekend.
New England’s secondary had arguably their best performance of 2013 in their Week 12 game against Denver. The group spent the majority of the game in press coverage, and frustrated the Broncos’ receivers with physical play that threw off their timing.
The game plan will likely be similar this week and cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard will have to continue their excellent play against Decker and Demaryius Thomas for it to be successful. One area to monitor will be the play of the Patriots’ slot cornerback, Kyle Arrington. Arrington started last week, but was replaced by promising rookie Logan Ryan after struggling in coverage. Arrington will be on a short leash again this week against Welker.
Talib, Dennard and Ryan each ranked in the Top 16 among corners in our Cover Snaps per Reception statistic, and Dennard had a career game last week (+4.0). Safety Devin McCourty was the starting free safety on the PFF All-Pro team, making this a well-rounded unit that has come a long way since even last year.
Rookie linebacker Jamie Collins also deserves a mention after his dominant display last week. His +7.9 grade in that game was the fourth best that we have ever given to a 4-3 OLB, and he did an excellent job covering Coby Fleener. Collins will likely be tasked with covering Julius Thomas this week, but he also has the versatility to blitz effectively and be a force against the run.
If New England’s secondary can create turnovers, they will give their team the best chance of playing the NFC’s representative in the Super Bowl.
Denver Offensive Line vs. New England Defensive Line
While their work is often overshadowed by the star power at the offensive skill positions, Denver’s offensive line is one of the best in the league. The group took top honors in our 2013 offensive line rankings, despite losing star left tackle Ryan Clady early in the season.
Guard Louis Vasquez emerged as a star in his first year in a Broncos uniform. The former Charger did not miss a snap or allow a single sack, and was named the starting right guard on our All Pro Team. Vasquez’ +33.6 overall grade was third-best among guards this season, and his +10.1 run blocking grade shows that he is capable of being a difference-maker in the run game.
The line certainly does an excellent job of protecting Manning, allowing just 16 sacks this season, but the quarterback deserves some credit as well. Manning averaged 2.36 seconds from the snap to the throw, faster than any other quarterback this year.
New England’s defensive line will be out to prove a point on Sunday after being gashed for 280 rushing yards in their meeting with Denver earlier this year. The Patriots’ interior line has struggled this year, especially against the run, but Sealver Siliga has been excellent since joining the team. Siliga has graded positively in all six of his games this season, and does his best work in run defense. His battles with Vasquez on Sunday will be intriguing.
Patriots defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich have done fine work in run defense this year, combining for 98 Run Stops in the regular season. As colleague Nathan Jahnke noted this week, Ninkovich’s +25.1 run defense grade was the highest at his position in the past five years.
Expect the Patriots to line up Jones, their best pass rusher, across from Broncos’ guard Zane Beadles, Denver’s worst pass protector, on passing downs to create an advantageous matchup and pressure Manning.