Curran's Patriots-Broncos preview
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
The Patriots have been running with impunity. The Broncos – because of their ball-control and offensive efficiency – rendered the Chargers running game moot last week and were effective stopping the run against ineffective teams like Oakland and Houston in Weeks 16 and 17. But the Chargers showed in Week 15 that yards can be had on the ground and the Patriots have shown they can get them with LeGarrette Blount using himself as a human battering ram.
The Broncos’ front of Terrence Knighton and rookie Sylvester Williams matched up against the Patriots interior three offensive linemen matters to the running game. But keep an eye on the Denver linebackers as well. Paris Lenon, a 36-year-old journeyman, has taken over in the 4-3 base for the Broncos at middle linebacker. He and the explosive Danny Trevathan can run but they aren’t stout and neither is the very talented Wesley Woodyard. It’s a style mismatch that favors the Patriots if Knighton and Williams can’t hold up.
The Patriots ran it 20 times on first-and-10 last week and threw it six times. They averaged 8.6 yards on those runs (greatly aided by Blount’s 73-yard ramble). The Broncos meanwhile were awesome stopping first-and-10 runs last week (11 attempts, 19 yards) against a hobbling Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead. First-and-10 productivity will be vital for the Patriots because second-and-long – even with a Denver secondary that’s torn up without Chris Harris (ACL).
The study this week done by Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels at Denver’s tendencies on first-down and reactions to play-action will be huge factors. And Brady’s ability to zero in on mismatches in the secondary will be a key. Duke Ihenacho, an undrafted safety who went to Junipero Serra HS just like Brady, will be in the crosshairs as will Champ Bailey, the corner Brady’s always considered the gold-standard in coverage. Bailey could be in for a lot of attacks from Brady.
The Patriots will like their speed and underneath mismatches with Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola but the geometry of two small receivers being able to run past and go over cornerbacks just doesn’t work. Expect all shot plays downfield to be off of heavily-sold play action. Ihenacho and free safety Mike Adams can’t get sucked up in run-support. The Patriots offense will be a chess match through the air, a steel-cage match on the ground.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
The Patriots defense – like every other one that’s faced the Broncos this year – will be holding on for dear life most of the game. The Broncos offense will look a little different this time around. First off, they now have confidence in Montee Ball (the genesis for that was the first meeting with the Patriots). Ball averaged 6.2 yards per carry over the final six regular-season games and 5.2 last week. He and Knowshon Moreno demand a commitment from the entire defense and that’s what makes it so daunting to have to commit to the run while knowing the Denver passing game is so diverse.
The presence of Julius Thomas in this one is the other big difference. Jamie Collins should be able to make some difference in coverage but it will probably take a fleet of players to deal with him. Anticipate Wes Welker being the responsibility of Kyle Arrington and Demaryius Thomas going to Aqib Talib. One area to watch is the Patriots’ pass rush. The ability of Bill Belichick to scheme it up so that Peyton Manning has to think through his reads post-snap will allow the Patriots to get kooky in the pass rush. Against guys like Andrew Luck who can roam the Patriots had to guard against scrambles. Not so with Manning. Look for a lot of games up front from the Pats D-line.
The progress made by Donta Hightower should be cause for cautious optimism about the linebacker level. I said before the playoffs began that, if the Patriots went to the Super Bowl, it would be because of their secondary. Among Talib, Arrington, Devin McCourty, Steve Gregory, Alfonzo Dennard or Logan Ryan a play will have to be made. Without a takeaway can you picture the Patriots winning? I can’t. They need to win a play.
THE KICKING GAME
Two of the best kickers in the league in Denver’s Matt Prater and Stephen Gostkowski. Bet on them having to make a big kick at some point, likely late.
Patriots punter Ryan Allen is ailing with a bad shoulder after last week’s divisional playoff win. How is that a concern? Well, if the explosive but mistake-prone Trindon Holliday gets up on Allen on a punt return that’s a bad deal. Same goes for Eric Decker who returned punts effectively last week for Denver. Allen is also the holder so he will have needed to exhibit that he was good to go with that responsibility in practice during the week to get the nod. Otherwise, it would likely be Brady holding again. The Broncos allowed 9.8 yards per return on the 28 that were brought back on Dustin Colquitt. Julian Edelman is always a factor in the punt return game. Expect touchbacks from both kickers on kickoff returns.
PATRIOTS SICK BAY
OUT: LB Steve Beauharnais (illness);
QUESTIONABLE: P Ryan Allen (shoulder), WR Aaron Dobson (foot), WR Kenbrell Thompkins (hip, concussion);
PROBABLE: WR Danny Amendola (groin), CB Alfonzo Dennard (shoulder, knee), LB Dane Fletcher (groin), LB Dont'a Hightower (ankle), G Logan Mankins (ankle), RB Shane Vereen (groin)
BRONCOS SICK BAY
PROBABLE: S Mike Adams (thigh), TE Joel Dreessen (knee), S Duke Ihenacho (knee), T Winston Justice (finger), G Chris Kuper (ankle), QB Peyton Manning (ankle), WR Demaryius Thomas (calf), CB Kayvon Webster (thumb)
GAME WITHIN THE GAME
Brady/McDaniels vs. Jack Del Rio
Tom Brady is 7-0 all-time against Del Rio-coached defenses between Jacksonville and Denver. It's absurd. Brady's probably been drooling since Julius Thomas made his big third-down catch against the Chargers to seal it. Game-by-game against JDR (the latter two as the DC of the Broncos).
22-for-34, 2 TDs, 0 INT
15-for-27, 3 TDs, 0 INT
28-for-39, 1 TD, 0 INT
26-for-28, 3 TDs, 0 INT
23-for-26, 4 TDs, 0 INT
23-for-31, 1 TD, 0 INT
34-for-50, 3 TDs, 0 INT
PATRIOTS GOTTA STOP …
It’s pick your poison really. But you can envision the Patriots sending Talib at Demaryius Thomas and Kyle Arrington at Welker and feeling good about it. The Patriots can’t just be walking Jamie Collins out on Julius Thomas all day and leaving him out of the linebacking mix, can they? It will take everyone to account for the player who will likely emerge as the best third-down option for the Broncos as the game wears on.
BRONCOS GOTTA STOP …
Pretty obvious choice as the Patriots have no reason not to feed the heat. Blount’s running with confidence and fury and is making yards that are not there by rototilling through contact. If the Broncos cannot stay stout at the first level, Blount on the very fast, explosive but smallish Denver linebackers is a good matchup for New England.
DON'T BE SURPRISED IF …
This game tracks like so many games in which Manning and Brady are the quarterbacks. A game of runs. Both quarterbacks are so good at diagnosing what a defense has done and may do that even if something’s working, it won’t work all game. Adjustments will be made. And flurries of offensive explosiveness may ensue.
THAT SUMS IT UP PATRIOTS STYLE
"It’s not like they’re going to install a whole new defense this week. They’ve got what they’ve done. We’ve got  games to really see how it sorted itself out, and you try to make an educated guess on how you think they’re going to play against us. That’s what you’re going to game plan, and you go from there, and you be prepared to make adjustments if you need to." – Tom Brady on game-planning for the Broncos
THAT SUMS IT UP BRONCOS STYLE
“That is a big, physical runner. He plays his game well. He knows his strengths and he knows his weaknesses, but he plays to his strengths a lot. We are going to try to keep him contained. They are going to come in here and try to run and do all that, but we are going to be prepared for whatever. It’s game time. Our defense knows what time it is and our offense knows what time it is. We just have to be prepared for that.” - Danny Trevathan, Broncos linebacker, on LeGarrette Blount.
THE WINNER IS...
Patriots 31, Broncos 30