Everything you need to know about Patriots-Broncos

Bryson Vesnaver breaks down Sunday's AFC Championship matchup, highlighting the key players in each game.

| 8 months ago
(AP Photo/Gary Wiepert)

(AP Photo/Gary Wiepert)

Everything you need to know about Patriots-Broncos


Sunday’s AFC Championship matchup will feature the 17th edition of the Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning rivalry, but as we all know, this title matchup will feature many influential characters.

The Patriots went into their AFC Divisional game against the Kansas City Chiefs with a lot of question marks. New England closed out the regular season with just two wins in their final six games, they had a ton of key injured players, and the offense looked out of sync. Well, they answered all those probes with a 27-20 victory over the Chiefs on Saturday, a game that never really felt as close as the score indicated. New England’s offense found their groove early and often, and while the defense bent at times. it did not break.

Meanwhile, the Broncos had some lingering questions of their own to answer. Namely, could their offense be effective with Manning returning to lead the way? The Broncos had some issues at times, but ultimately came away with a 23-16 home victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Denver counted on timely plays from their vaunted defense when it mattered most. It wasn’t a perfect game, but a win is a win, especially in the playoffs.

Now the Patriots travel to Denver next Sunday with a spot in Super Bowl 50 on the line. Here’s how both teams look from a PFF point-of-view.

New England Patriots

The good

The Patriots’ quick passing game was once again a force to be reckoned with on Sunday, thanks in part to the return of top wide receiver Julian Edelman (86.3 overall season grade). Brady (93.0) averaged just 2.13 seconds per passing attempt, a far cry from the 2.45 seconds he averaged when Edelman was out of the lineup. Brady completed 76.5 percent of his passes thrown in under 2.5 seconds. That quick release went hand-in-hand with improved offensive line play, as the entire starting unit finished with positive pass blocking grades. New England didn’t allow a sack or a quarterback hit, and gave up a mere five hurries.

Defensively, the Patriots were stout against the run, despite numbers that might tell a different story. On designed runs, the Patriots surrendered just 90 yards on 26 carries and one touchdown. They were led by interior lineman Alan Branch (77.1) and safety Patrick Chung (86.9). Branch led the team with a +3.1 run defense game grade (0.0 is average), producing four solo stops and multiple disruptive plays. Chung registered five solo stops and was a big help up in the box against the run. As a unit, the Patriots only missed two tackles against Kansas City running backs.

The bad

The Patriots have no semblance of a running game, at all. That’s not a surprise to anyone who watches them play, and they don’t seem to care about it, either. Still, it is their biggest weakness. New England called only seven rushing plays to backs, and they gained just 21 yards. Of those yards, 16 of them came after contact, which means the backs averaged just 0.71 yards before contact per rush, not a very strong number. The longest run of the day was just 8 yards, and running back James White (71.1) forced just one missed tackle on his only carry.

The Patriots had some issues in pass coverage against a Chiefs team that doesn’t have a very strong receiving unit from top to bottom. Specifically, cornerback Logan Ryan (81.6), who’s been having a fantastic season, had some lapses on Saturday. He allowed 8-of-10 passes thrown his way to be completed for 101 yards and a touchdown. Malcolm Butler had a mixed day, allowing 6-of-10 passes for 58 yards, but did have a big pass breakup. The New England secondary was asked to cover for longer than usual, which might have added to their issues. Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith averaged a league-high 3.13 seconds per passing attempt this weekend.

Key player

QB Tom Brady (93.0): Brady continues to throw the ball incredibly efficiently. After finishing the season with the fifth-best accuracy percentage (77.7 percent), he continued that trend on Saturday by being accurate on 78.0 percent of his throws, the highest among all quarterbacks in the Divisional Round. Brady also led the eight different quarterbacks with a 99.80 PFF QB Rating.

SS Patrick Chung (86.9): All season long, Chung has been one of New England’s best defenders, and he showed that again on Saturday, posting the third-highest defensive game grade. He was strong against the run, but it was his coverage that really stood out, helping blanket Kansas City’s stud tight end, Travis Kelce.

Denver Broncos

The good

It was an uncharacteristically resilient game from the Broncos’ offensive line on Sunday. Despite struggling all year long in pass protection, they appeared much stronger this game, and did a good job protecting their quarterback. Each of the starting five allowed just one QB hurry. The only sack allowed was the result of a bad block by a Broncos running back. Denver was mostly average at run blocking, with the exception of Evan Mathis (90.0), who led the team with a +5.2 run block game grade (0.0 is average). He continues to be the best run blocking guard in the NFL, leading the league with a 97.3 grade (1–100 scale).

As it’s been doing all season long, the Broncos pass rush rose to the occasion against the Steelers. On Sunday, the unit was led by defensive end Derek Wolfe (90.6), who was known more as an elite run defender this season. While he did grade positively against the run on Sunday, he finished with two sacks, five QB hurries, and a +2.1 pass rush game grade. Per usual, outside linebacker Von Miller (92.1) chipped in with seven QB hurries and a team-high pass rush grade. Overall, the Broncos finished with four sacks and 20 hurries, pressuring Ben Roethlisberger on nearly 48 percent of his dropbacks.

The bad

The Broncos running backs both had a tough time on Sunday rushing the ball, and failed to make a difference in the receiving game. Aside from one big 34-yard scamper from C.J. Anderson (72.3), the Broncos gained just 76 yards on 30 carries. The backs were able to force six missed tackles, but averaged a mere 1.45 yards after contact per carry. In the passing game, Anderson gained just 11 yards on two catches, and dropped another target, while Ronnie Hillman (67.2) dropped the only target he saw.  There were some struggles in run blocking that contributed, with tight end Owen Daniels (70.5) and guard Louis Vasquez (60.2) both posting well below-average run block game grades.

The Steelers were able to throw the ball very effectively, as much of the Broncos’ secondary struggled in coverage. Chris Harris Jr. (85.1) was injured early on, and it undeniably affected his play. He allowed 70 yards on just four receptions (six targets) and also logged a missed tackle. Bradley Roby (78.4), who took over starting reps from Harris Jr., was exposed by the Steelers. Despite seeing just three targets, Roby allowed all of them to be caught for 116 yards. A whopping 78 of those yards came after the catch. The Broncos allowed 339 yards passing, but more troubling were the 191 yards that came after the catch.

Key player

WR Emmanuel Sanders (86.8): Sanders has been the Broncos’ best receiver all season. He averaged 2.10 yards per route run on the year, and finished inside the top-20 in terms of receiving grade. Against Pittsburgh, he finished as the only Broncos receiver with a positive receiving grade, hauling in five-of-eight passes for 85 yards.

OLB Von Miller (92.1): Miller is a pass rushing machine; his 90.5 pass rush grade ranks as the second-highest grade among edge defenders. Miller generated 82 total pressures in the regular season, second-most in the league. On Sunday, he had seven pressures, led his team in pass rushing grade, and had the highest graded game among all edge defenders that played this weekend at +4.3

Matchups to watch

WR Julian Edelman (86.3) vs. CB Bradley Roby (78.4): With Harris Jr. nursing an injury, and Aqib Talib likely to take on Brandon LaFell, the toughest coverage matchup falls on Roby. Edelman hardly missed a beat in his return from injury, catching 10-of-16 passes for 100 yards. Roby has had issues with yards after the catch, surrendering 4.32 YAC per reception on the season. On Sunday, that number jumped to 26.0.

WR Demaryius Thomas (78.5) vs. CB Logan Ryan (81.6): This matchup was a big talking point after the two teams played earlier this season. Ryan played extremely well, limiting Thomas to just one 36-yard catch (on a perfectly thrown ball) out of eight targets, and had two passes defended. Thomas hasn’t looked quite like himself at times this season, but he still averaged 2.20 yards per route run, the eighth-highest among receivers.

Paths to victory

New England can win: If Brady can get the ball into his receivers’ hands quickly and accurately, allowing them to gain yards after the catch against a Denver defense that struggled with tackling in space against Pittsburgh. And if New England’s defense can stop the Broncos’ rushing attack, it will force Manning to try to beat them through the air.

Denver can win: If their run game can get going early on, taking the pressure off of Manning and allowing him to use the play-action effectively. And if Denver’s secondary can slow the Patriots receivers down at the line of scrimmage and force the New England offensive line to block a strong pass rush for longer than usual, it could be Bill Belichick’s undoing.

| Analyst

Bryson has been an analyst at Pro Football Focus since 2014, and has also been a contributor to 120 Sports.

  • Tom Jones

    Question: why is the Patriots press box behind the visitor’s side of the field? Isn’t that unusual?

  • ElwayIsGod7

    At least we know the Broncos’ headsets will work this week :)

    • George McDowell

      And that the balls will be properly inflated.

      • jon boswell

        yet the broncos will get crushed

        • anon76returns

          That’s what everyone said last time these two played. As I recall the Vegas line was even bigger in favor of the Patriots heading into that game.
          The Patriots have had one semi-impressive win since Thanksgiving, and that was a one score effort against a team missing it’s best offensive and defensive players. They’ve never played well at Mile High, and the Broncos are the only team in the league with a winning record vs. Brady.
          The Broncos sport a top 5 DL, a top 3 LB corps, and a top 3 secondary, making them by far the best defense in the league. On offense they have a RB that gives the Pats problems, and a cerebral QB with enough talent at WR to keep the defense honest. Everyone writing the Broncos off at this point is just ignoring the facts of the situation.

          • Cory Santos

            That top 3 secondary sure allowed a lot of wide open receivers on Sunday and that cerebral QB has a wet noodle for an arm.

          • anon76returns

            That top 3 secondary had by far it’s worst tackling day of the season, and still gave up less yards and yards/attempt, and less points than the Pats did when playing against the Steelers.
            And that cerebral QB had a wet noodle for an arm in 2013 when he broke all passing records and handily defeated the Pats in the AFCCG, in spite of having half of the defensive starters on IR.

          • Josh Coryell

            Well Antonio Brown also played that first game. You’re right, it’s not like he’s the best WR in the league or anything.

          • jon boswell

            LOL. drink your kool-aid… (also im a seahawks fan)

          • anon76returns

            I guess cliches about kool-aid are a lot easier than actually trying to discuss the match up in any sort of intelligent manner.
            It is a fact that the Broncos have a better record against playoff teams than the Patriots this year.
            It is a fact that the Broncos have been home underdogs twice this season, and won both games.
            It is a fact that the Broncos were missing two first ballot hall of fame players when they beat the Patriots in December, and those guys are back now. In contrast, the Patriots were missing Edelman and Amendola, two guys who have never even made a Pro Bowl, yet we’re supposed to think that the Patriots played at some great disadvantage.
            It is also a fact that the Patriots looked pretty bad in their last six games, and even last week with a revived offense and playing at home they were only able to beat the Chiefs by 7 points with Reid doing Andy Reid clock management at the end of the 4th qtr.

            As a Seahawks fan I’m sure you can recall SB 48, when a whole lot of the MSM discounted the defensive-led team in favor of the team with the splashy scoring. I’m seeing a lot of that now with the Pats & Broncos.

          • David Lim

            Edelman was probably around 30% of the Patriots yards coming through the air, and having Amendola helps too(not to mention that since Amendola was out Chris Harper was returning punts that day and the game did change on his dropped punt). And that Chiefs team that you so talk about smacked the a Broncos around silly in your own building and probably would’ve swept the Broncos this season has it not been for 2 defensive holding calls on KC on that game tying TD drive ( although Jamal Charles fumbled it like an idiot). You also speak as if the Patriots have a weak defense. It’s actually top 10 and right behind the Broncos in sacks. BTW Jamie Collins wasn’t playing in that game so their defense will only be better. And I had the Seahawks btw in Sb 48 easiest $400 I’ve ever made.

          • anon76returns

            By any measure, D Ware and Peyton Manning are much better players than Edelman or the imminently average Danny Amendola. Those two account for large amounts of the Patriots offense because they’re starters, not because of great talent (though I’ll give Edelman definitely has quickness, good routes, and rapport with the QB). There’s just not much to argue about there. And Harper didn’t actually drop the punt- he bobbled it for a minute before being separated from the ball by a Denver defender. In other words, it was as much the Broncos making a play as it was the Patriots screwing the pooch, and the Patriots had already used up their TO luck by having a batted Osweiler pass drop right into the hands of a pass rusher.
            The Chiefs team beat a hobbled Manning. They had one drive of over 50 yards all game, and that was a 2 play drive with a blown coverage. Thanks to Manning’s INTs they got the ball at the 24, 31, 50, and 49 yard line, and they managed to generate 13 points on the ensuing drives. No way that effort would have won that game against a healthy Manning or if Brock Osweiler would have started, and that was when KC had a healthy Houston to rush the passer. Exchanging him for Dee Ford is a huge downgrade, and that’s what the Patriots beat (with the help of Andy Reid-style clock management).
            The Patriots have a good defense. They’re average against the run, but pretty good against the pass, both in coverage and in terms of pass rush- that’s important for them because most teams are forced into passing situations to play catch up. They did finish 2nd in total # of sacks, but they . They’re a top 10 D (I’ve never said otherwise), but just not in the mode of the Broncos, who are #1 in yards per pass, adjusted yards per pass, yards per rush, yards per passing attempt, yards per play, yards per drive, points allowed per drive, and sack %. They’re not just the best this defense this season, they are historically good.

          • Jack Casey

            So if/when the Patriots win what will be the explanation?

          • anon76returns

            ?
            I never said the Patriots couldn’t win. They’re a good team. I’m arguing against the game being a foregone conclusion in favor of the Patriots, which is by far the dominant narrative.

          • Brian Baker

            I have they don’t deserve it truth is you will also go to prison for taunting under the influence

          • Brian Baker

            They won’t shut that lying mouth you will also be sent to prison also Patriots fans will also be rejected to prison also

          • Brian Baker

            You and the Patriots are cowards they won’t get it read my mouth NEVER

          • Brian Baker

            Patriots are dead to me they will confess and be sent to prison no more Patriots ever again for 5 more years

          • Brian Baker

            They won’t shut up

          • Brian Baker

            How about how the Patriots will loose they are going down for a crime that the Patriots committed from the last Super-Bowl

          • crosseyedlemon

            Well here’s another fact regarding the situation….the last time a team
            with a negative turnover ratio won the AFC was 1999. Broncos were -4
            this season.

          • Brian Baker

            They won’t forget trying the Patriots are monsters at large they are done don’t care and never will

          • Brian Baker

            Not anymore I will write the Patriots off we can’t ignore any facts I am a Broncos reporter I made these facts and it is a true story so learn to accept it I ban the Patriots for life

        • Brian Baker

          That is a lie you will be sent to prison also if you talk to my Broncos that way they are mine don’t care about what you think it’s not up to you I am calling the shots and the orders the Patriots and you will be crushed how’s that that is Blackmail

          • jon boswell

            lay off the mile high drugs.. my team crushed you and your pathetic denver donkeys on the biggest stage. you will get crushed again by scam newton

        • Brian Baker

          Lier you and the Patriots will be crushed in prison

        • Brian Baker

          Yet the Patriots will get crushed coward lier

        • Brian Baker

          Yet the Patriots and you will be crushed shut up it is the end of the road for the Patriots

        • Brian Baker

          Delete my replies you will be arrested for accessory to treating my Broncos badly and quit it or I will make you wish you were never born

      • Mr. Generic

        I don’t think HGH causes shrinkage.

      • crosseyedlemon

        I guess that only leaves a coin toss controversy so Roger Goodell better make sure that medallion is evenly weighted.

    • crosseyedlemon

      Unless Belicheck has hired a frequency jamming drone to fly overhead.

  • Mercurydawnson

    Why did manning have such a poor statistical year? Is it his neck? What is wrong?

    • TheTruth

      for starters he hasn’t felt his fingers in his throwing hand since his surgery, his arm got weaker this year after very slowly getting better the first 3 years with us, plus he couldn’t drive his throws because his ligament on his heel was torn, and his ribs or shoulder were bruised. so they had to switch from Kubiaks run offense with bootlegs to a makeshift mid season new offense and the starting LT who is an all pro went to IR before camp, their RT was a rook and was top 10 in protection but played weeks 6-10 with a torn labrum so they put him in Ir week 10. their LG missed 50% of the snaps every week due to injury, and they had a 1st time starter at C(who was top 10 overall by the end of the ear but was slow comingon)