Oh, the hype of this game. Peyton Manning vs Tom Brady, Part Infinity. Over the last week, I've heard this game referred to as the "AFC's Super Bowl". I wouldn't go that far, but there's no doubt that this is a game with far-reaching ramifications.
Earlier this week, we rolled out our in depth game preview. In analyzing the Patriots, much was learned. They are a team to be reckoned with. On the road, the Broncos mettle will be tested.
To beat the Patriots, especially on the road, you have to play disciplined, fundamentally sound football. You almost have to be perfect. In 7 games thus far, the Broncos have flashed glimpses of perfection, but tomorrow, they'll have to sustain it for 60 minutes, especially with the AFC's #1 playoff seed potentially on the line. Now onto the keys to a Broncos victory.
Ground and Pound
It has been well documented that the Broncos began the season as a sub-par rushing offense. As the featured running back, Montee Ball was only able to rush for 172 yards, on 55 carries, through the team's first 4 games, good for just 3.1 yards per carry (YPC). Ball tore his groin in week 5 vs the Arizona Cardinals, sidelining him ever since.
In fairness to Ball, the offensive line vastly under-performed run blocking, as Ball was met with first contact behind the line of scrimmage way too often. But when Ronnie Hillman was plugged in, following Ball's injury, the running game came to life. Hillman's speed and burst to the hole, made all the difference and rejuvenated the Broncos running game.
Over the last 4 games, Hillman has rushed for 347 yards and 2 touchdowns, averaging 4.7 YPC. However, at only 195lbs, he is not built to shoulder the entire rushing load for the Broncos. Give him 15-20 touches and he'll get you around 100 total yards of offense.
Enter Juwan Thompson, the undrafted rookie free agent out of Duke. As a power-back, Thompson has been the perfect compliment to Hillman's speedy attack. The violence with which he runs is something special to behold. He has added 107 yards rushing and 3 touchdowns, in relief of Hillman. With the two young runners, the Broncos have something special rolling in the backfield.
Last year, Knowshon Moreno rushed for more than 200 yards vs the Patriots, on the road. The Broncos game-plan dictated a ground and pound approach. They'll need to take a similar approach this year, as the Patriots are the NFL's 25th ranked rushing defense, giving up 129.6 yards per game.
Most opposing defenses have been willing to keep the box light and allow the Broncos to run thus far, in an attempt to take away what the offense does best; namely, throw the ball. The New York Jets often dropped as many as 8 guys into coverage at times in week 6, daring the Broncos to run. As you can see, Hillman and Thompson have made the opposition pay for such miscalculating strategy.
Bill Belichick will likely take the same approach this week. The onus is on the big boys up front to execute and take advantage of a soft box. All Hillman needs is a crease and with his speed, he can get to the second level. If the Broncos can duplicate last year's success on the ground this time, and force the Patriots to defend both facets of the offense, the Broncos could win this game handily.
Spread The Ball Around
When the Broncos traveled to Foxboro last year, they were without Pro Bowl tight end, Julius Thomas. The Broncos are at full strength on offense this time around, however (sorry, Montee). Thomas could be a key player in determining the offense's success, depending on how the Patriots choose to defend him.
I wouldn't be surprised to see safety, Devin McCourty, assigned the task of covering Thomas, with a linebacker, like Jamie Collins, to bracket. If the Patriots gamble by matching up with Thomas one-on-one, Thomas will have a big day, especially in the redzone.
The Patriots will also try to take away Demaryius Thomas by dispatching Darrelle Revis to cover him. In his first season in New England, Revis is having a solid outing. He's been targeted 38 times in 2014, but he's allowing a completion 55% of the time. However, he's only allowed 1 touchdown in coverage.
In the passing game, stopping the Thomases will be Belichick's top priority, which opens up a lot of opportunities for Emmanuel Sanders and Wes Welker. Former Seattle Seahawks cornerback, Brandon Browner, will likely be matched up on Sanders. With his size (6'4, 221lbs), Browner will try to dominate Sanders at the line of scrimmage by being physical.
Disrupting Manning's timing with his receivers is a strategy that has worked in the past (see Super Bowl XLVIII). But if Sanders is able to beat Browner, or whomever is covering him, off the LOS, and is able to run free, Manning will find him.
Welker made his name at Gillette Stadium, playing for the Patriots for 6 seasons. But last year, he was only able to grab 4 receptions for 31 yards at Foxboro. Although I wouldn't quantify Welker's relationship with the Patriots as having "bad blood", there's no doubt that he wants to show up in a big way on Sunday, as a bit of payback for letting him go.
Belichick is patient and is willing to play the long-game vs a quarterback like Manning. He's willing to allow the dink and dunk and hope that eventually, Manning will get impatient and take a chance down-field, wherein the Patriots can take the ball away.
Manning will have to play smart and not turn the ball over. There will be plenty of opportunities to spread the ball around. Manning can't play into Belichick's hands. Establishing the run will help in this regard. Guys like Sanders and Welker could be in for a productive outing on Sunday.
Efficiency In The Kicking Game
When the Broncos released All-Pro kicker, Matt Prater, just a few weeks ago, they went all in on Brandon McManus. Because of Prater's 4-game suspension, McManus has been the Broncos kicker all year long. And the results have been a mixed bag.
On field goal attempts 20-49 yards out, he's 6/6. But from 50 yards and beyond, Prater's specialty, McManus is 0/2. Field goal percentage-wise, he's 28th in the league, hitting on just 75% of his kicks. Granted, he's only had 8 opportunities, thanks to Manning and the offense's elite efficiency in the redzone. The Broncos get touchdowns.
McManus has yet to be called upon with the game on the line. That could change vs the Patriots. All empirical evidence suggests that tomorrow's game will be close, and whichever team wins, it'll likely be by a single score. When McManus has his number called, he has to come through. He has the leg, but his accuracy is in question, to say nothing of his mental toughness.
Stop the Gronk
Rob Gronkowski is back. Last week, he caught all 9 of his targets, for 149 yards and 3 touchdowns. This is an unfortunate development for a Broncos defense who has struggled to defend tight ends all year long.
In week 8, the San Diego Chargers had great success in targeting Antonio Gates in the passing game. Even though he only caught 5 of his 8 targets, for 54 yards, he did score 2 touchdowns. In both scores, T.J. Ward was in coverage. Ward is a talented strong safety and one of the league's best. With his physicality, you'd think he'd have success in covering tight ends. Alas, that's simply not the case.
Athletic tight ends have traditionally been devastating to the Broncos, under defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio. His typical approach simply will not work against Gronkowski. To take away the Patriots most potent offensive weapon, Del Rio should take a page out of Bill Belichick's book.
When the Patriots faced the New Orleans Saints last season, Belichick chose to assign a cornerback to cover All-Pro tight end, Jimmy Graham. Aqib Talib, one of the NFL's most physical corners, shut Graham out. When Graham left the game in the 4th quarter, he had been held without a catch.
Talib has the physicality and the athleticism to effectively cover elite tight ends. He could be the Broncos only hope in stopping Gronkowski tomorrow. It will take hubris to do it, but Del Rio would be remiss to approach covering Gronkowski in any other way.
Like most quarterbacks, when Tom Brady has time to throw, he will pick apart the opposing defense. Some quarterbacks can maintain their accuracy when under duress. It's a rare trait. Brady is not one of them.
The Broncos will likely continue their trend of stopping the run vs the Patriots, especially with Stevan Ridley, their best between-the-tackles runner, on injured reserve. Doing so will render the Patriots one-dimensional. The onus will be on Brady.
With DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller playing at All-Pro levels, the Broncos don't have to blitz, in order to get pressure on the quarterback. Del Rio can afford to drop 7 guys into coverage. Ware and Miller have 16 sacks combined, through 7 games, putting them on pace for more than 36 for the season.
John Elway brought Ware to Denver specifically for games such as tomorrow's. All-Pros show up in big games. In his career, Miller has produced big-time vs the Patriots. In 3 regular season games, he has notched 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and last season, he recovered a fumble, which he returned for a touchdown.
With Patriots left tackle, Nate Solder, struggling in pass protection, Ware will have plenty of opportunities to get to Brady. Right tackle, Sebastian Vollmer, has played well thus far, earning a +6.1 cumulative grade via ProFootballFocus, but he has always struggled vs Miller.
In the first half of last year's matchup, the Patriots turned the ball over 3 times, resulting in 17 points for the Broncos. The question is, can this pass rushing duo impact tomorrow's game in the same way? The answer will likely determine the outcome.
In the video below, Brandon Perna rants about why he really doesn't like the Patriots.