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AFC Championship Preview: Patriots vs. Broncos

The New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos will meet in the AFC Championship for the second time in three years, once again doing battle at Sports Authority Field in Denver. The Patriots lost 26-20 in overtime after blowing a 14-point fourth quarter lead, but they were without key players like Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Jamie Collins. All are back and the Patriots are looking for revenge. Let's examine how these two great teams match up.

When the Patriots Run: The Patriots are going to have their hands full trying to run the ball against this excellent defensive front seven. Denver was ranked third in the NFL vs. the run during the 2015 regular season, allowing just 83.6 yards per game, 3.3 yards per carry, and ten total touchdowns. In last year's 43-21 Patriots win, they ran for 66 yards on 25 carries, a paltry 2.6 yards per carry. In their Week 12 meeting, New England ran for 39 yards on 16 carries, another sign that the Denver run defense is excellent and it's a waste of time to try and establish it. One thing that did stand out though- the ten touchdowns allowed, which is a high number for a defense that is so strong. If the Patriots are at the goal line, the run will be in play, and with how well Steven Jackson has looked in short yardage, it wouldn't be surprising if New England ran in short yardage more than throw. Advantage Denver, but the Patriots will pick their spots.

When the Patriots Pass: In the Week 12 game, Tom Brady went 23-42 for 280 and three touchdowns, which are great numbers when you consider Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola missed the game, and Rob Gronkowski got injured in the third quarter. New England goes into Mile High with all their weapons and they have a week under their belt against the Chiefs, so their is a good chance the passing game is even more in sync against Denver. Brady went 33-53 for 333 yards and four touchdowns last season against the Broncos, and he did that with basically the same cast of characters he has this season. If New England's offensive line can protect him, Brady will be patient and work his way through this strong Denver defense, just like he did last season and in November with limited personnel. Denver has a strong pass rush and the top-rated defense in the NFL, but the Patriots offense doesn't fear anyone and will throw for over 300 yards today.

When the Broncos Run: The Patriots finished ninth in the regular season when it came to defending the run, allowing opponents to run for just 98.8 yards per game. They would have finished if Dont'a Hightower didn't miss so much time, but every team has to deal with injuries. In the November 29th meeting, the Broncos ran wild on the Patriots, running 32 times for 179 yards, with the clincher coming on a 48-yard touchdown run by CJ Anderson in overtime. Dont'a Hightower only played 41% of the snaps (32 plays) due to injury and Jamie Collins was out with an illness. New England knows they need to keep Denver at 100 yards or below to control the Broncos offense, so their gameplan is revolved around stopping the run, especially now that strong-armed Brock Osweiler has returned to the bench. Denver will have their moments in the run game, but with Hightower and Collins back in the mix, it will be awfully hard to get anything going consistently.

When the Broncos Pass: Last time the Patriots played the Broncos, Brock Osweiler was under center as Peyton Manning "rehabbed from an injury". Osweiler was ineffective Week 17 so Gary Kubiak went back to weak-armed but wily Peyton Manning, a move that worked to spark the offense and help Denver lock up the top seed in the AFC. Last week Manning started vs. Pittsburgh and helped lead them to victory, but it is clear that his days of hurting a team with any type of intermediate to deep passing game are over. Bill Belichick will use man coverage a lot today and try to force Manning to make throws he simply can't make anymore, which is the reason Denver went to Osweiler in the first place. Logan Ryan had a great game in November, holding Demaryius Thomas to one catch for 36 yards on 13 targets. Thomas does have better chemistry with Manning so he should be better today, but Ryan knows he can cover him and confidence is half the battle. Emmanuel Sanders had six catches for 113 yards when these teams last met, but that was with a quarterback who could get the ball down the field with accuracy. Expect the Broncos to try and throw short and take advantage of holes in the Patriots defense, a defense that will spend a majority of the day in man coverage and attacking the quarterback in passing situations.

Special Teams: Football Outsiders has the Patriots finishing as the fifth ranked special teams unit and the Broncos 16th, but this game comes down to one thing- turnovers. New England was up 21-7 early in the fourth quarter when rookie wide reciever Chris Harper fumbled a punt to open the door for a comeback win for Denver. If New England avoids mistakes and has their typical special teams game, they should be fine. The Broncos lost returner Omar Bolden, but they have a deep roster and should be able to fill his role. Overall, I think the two teams are even in this area.

Coaching Matchup: Bill Belichick vs. Gary Kubiak, a matchup we've seen often over the last few seasons. Belichick got the best of Kubiak when he was with the Texans, and this Bronco team isn't setup much different. Belichick knows how to stop Kubiak's zone blocking run scheme, but it comes down to the players sticking to the gameplan he's deployed. With Belichick's track record, it's safe to assume his defense will "do their job" and slow down the strong Bronco running game. Manning adds an element Kubiak didn't have in Houston, but this isn't 2013, and Manning can't throw the way he used to. Advantage, Belichick.

Prediction: Patriots 27, Broncos 16

The Patriots passing game is back in full gear, and even though the Broncos feature the top defense in the league, it doesn't effect the way New England looks at them. The Patriots know they can throw on these guys, they did it in 2014, in November, and they'll do it again today. Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower on the field together for the Patriots defense, which is going to cause some serious problems for the Broncos running and passing game. Denver will find a way to score some points and they'll hold New England down a lot in the red zone, it won't be enough because Brady and the offense will be moving the ball all afternoon. Denver may have home field advantage, but this is the second time in three months that the Patriots will play in Denver; it's almost impossible to beat the same team twice, especially if the game is played on the same field.

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