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The New England Patriots and Denver Broncos will be competing this weekend in a high-stakes, win or go home game for the AFC Championship at Sports Authority Field at Mile High and the chance to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLVIII. The Patriots are underdogs going into Mile High and as history has proven, they excel in the underdog role.
The Patriots advanced to their third straight AFC Title game after convincingly defeating the Indianapolis Colts 43-22 in the AFC Divisional Round of the playoffs. The Broncos are coming off a victory against the division foe San Diego Chargers, and will be looking to avenge their Week 12 loss to the Patriots.
Back in Week 12, the Patriots hosted the Broncos in what promised to be an epic match-up and it definitely delivered. The Patriots defeated the Broncos in overtime after erasing a self-imposed 24-point deficit going into halftime.
The stakes for this game are intensified as the winner advances onto the Super Bowl while the losers hang their heads in disappointment and return home to face a long off-season. If the Week 12 game was any indication of how this AFC Championship game will play out, both teams will need to mind their P’s and Q’s and minimize their mistakes. Here are the keys to what the Patriots need to do in order to upset the favored Broncos on their home field and advance to the Super Bowl.
Brady v. Manning: Brady v. Manning XV has been the headline all week. There is just something special anytime two of the best quarterbacks in the league face each other head-to-head. The two seem to always be on their A-game when competing against each other and the games are always intense and physical. As the two go head-to-head for the second time this season, both will be hungry for another chance to compete in another Super Bowl and both have something to prove. Manning has to prove he can be a successful postseason quarterback while Brady has to prove he can still win a championship, as many are quick to point out he has not hoisted a Lombardi trophy in nine years.
Brady has won 10 of the last 14 match-ups against Manning and two of the last three postseason meetings between the two, but Manning had the last laugh back in the 2006 AFC Championship game when he rallied his team from a 18-point deficit against the Patriots en route to a Super Bowl victory.
Both quarterbacks are also fighting Father Time, so it will come down to who is more hungry for the Lombardi trophy. Both will put up spectacular numbers against the respective opposing defenses but Brady, with the help with his offensive line, will just barely out-perform Manning, making just one more big play than his counterpart to lead his team to the Super Bowl.
Pass rush: There will definitely be pressure on the defensive line to collapse the pocket on Manning and force him to make mistakes. Players like Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich will need to really step up and do their jobs to disrupt Manning’s timing with his receivers and to make an impact on this game.
When the Patriots last played the Broncos, they adjusted their game plan in the second half to get more pressure on Manning, which forced Manning to make quick decisions and gave the ball back to the Patriots offense. In order to defeat Manning and the Broncos, the pass rush will need to make sure to get Manning off the field and let Brady go to work on offense.
Shut down the Broncos receivers: In addition to bringing pressure on Manning, the secondary will need to once again be physical with the receivers off the line of scrimmage to disrupt their patterns and frustrate Manning and his receivers.
The secondary has been holding steady through the end of the season and in the postseason. Though they still give up some big plays, the secondary has come up big with interceptions and knockdowns. Skip Bayless of ESPN’s First Take even went as far as to say the Patriots have the best corner duo in Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard left in the playoffs.
The bend-but-don’t-break defense has brought the Patriots this far. In fact, the Patriots held Manning to his worst game of the season, completing 19 of 36 passes for 150 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. If the Patriots defense can emulate the second half of Week 12′s game, they can hope to limit Manning and his offense.
Force turnovers (and secure the football): We all know the story of the two halves last time the two teams met. The Patriots beat themselves in the first half with three lost fumbles on their first three possessions, but redeemed themselves in the second half by putting pressure on Manning and forcing three turnovers.
Stay with the running game: In order for the Patriots to beat the Broncos at home, the Patriots need to stick with what has been working on offense. The Patriots have been able to successfully execute a balanced passing and running game. Last week against the Colts, the Patriots recorded a season-high 46 rushing attempts for 234 yards and six rushing touchdowns, mostly behind the legs of LeGarrette Blount.
Blount has been explosive lately with his mix of power and speed, providing the Patriots offense with a spark and confidence in the running game to win tight games for them. Not only that, but the running game takes pressure off Brady and opens up the play-action, all of which contributed to their victory last week.
Injuries: This time around, the rosters will look just a little different as both teams will be without some of their top players. On the Patriots side, their offense will be without red-zone threat tight end Rob Gronkowski, and the latest player to be placed on season-ending injury reserve on defense, Brandon Spikes. The Broncos defense took a big hit with the loss of cornerback Chris Harris, who has been ruled out with a torn ACL and they will also be without one of their best pass rushers in Von Miller, also out with a torn ACL. A key to victory will be which team will be able to adjust the best to their injuries and find alternative ways to win the game.
This will be a chess match just like the Week 12 match-up between the two teams. Look for the Patriots to tighten their game up and take care of the ball this time around. Despite being underdogs on the road, the Patriots will once again raise the Lamar Hunt trophy and play in their sixth Super Bowl since 2001 with a 31-28 victory over the Broncos, proving once again that Brady is a better quarterback than Manning.