Everything you need to know about Patriots-Broncos
Bryson Vesnaver breaks down Sunday's AFC Championship matchup, highlighting the key players in each game.
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 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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.