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The AFC Championship game has New England heading to Denver for a highly anticipated Sunday afternoon match up. The Patriots and Broncos have provided fans with some great games over the past few seasons. The championship game brings not just the top two seeded teams in the AFC together but also the top two quarterbacks of this era of football to face each other once again in what is likely the last Brady vs Manning post season match up. With the high stakes of a Super Bowl appearance on the line, the hype of a Brady vs Manning contest, and the pairing of Gronk, Edelman, and Amendola vs the Denver secondary led by Harris Jr, Talib, and the physically dangerous T.J. Ward has also led to some entertaining banter between the teams.

In a SportsCenter interview Tuesday Chris Harris Jr. was asked about stopping Rob Gronkowski, his response was the following: “You gotta hit him low, man. Hit him in his knees. That’s the best chance you got of hitting him.” As many know Gronkowski has had his share of injuries, particularly to his knee dating back to the 2013 ACL and MCL tear precipitated by T.J. Ward’s untimely contact to the knee at the exact moment Gronk planted his foot in the ground. The hit jarred open the debate of low hits being clean hits as Gronk was sidelined with the season ending injury. Another scare for the big tight end happened on a snowy night this November in the lost to Denver where a shoulder to knee appeared much worse than it actually was and had Gronk and all of New England holding their breath. To be fair to Chris Harris Jr tackling Gronkowski low may be the only way to drag him to the ground. He is too big and strong for most defensive backs to pull down alone and, with speed to out run linebackers if able to get loose, is one of the best yards after contact receivers in the league. Whether Gronkowski actually took offense to the comment about hitting him low or just sounded off in anticipation of the biggest game of the season Gronk responded in a very Gronk way with this double entendre via twitter: https://twitter.com/PaetyWinant. Without diving into the implied meaning of the duel-edged comment it is clear to see Gronkowski fans and followers will likely have a laugh at the expense of an unappreciative Broncos squad, as tensions between the teams continue to rise heading into Sunday.

With the history of these two post-season giants, a quarterback rivalry dating back over a decade, Gronkowski’s history and Ward’s presence the comments made by Harris and response from Gronk have gained a lot of traction in the build up to Sunday’s game. Ultimately this is probably the least serious thing that will be discussed this week leading up to the game but it is entertaining to see the two sides go at each other and for those following along to have a laugh as the Broncos now have some great white board material. After all it is going to almost necessary as the week rolls on to talk about something other than Brady vs Manning statistics and which analyst picks who as the best quarterback of the era. At this point both signal callers know that success is measured in rings and both will be playing for a chance to get their teams to another Super Bowl and solidify an already established greatness.

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The AFC Championship promises to be a great game. After defeating Kansas City and Pittsburgh, respectively, the New England Patriots will travel to Denver to play the Broncos on Sunday for a trip to Santa Clara. The main storyline will be the 17th matchup between future Hall of Famers Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, the fourth time it has come in the AFC Championship.

On Saturday, Tom Brady looked much like he had during the first 10 games of the season. With Julian Edelman back and Rob Gronkowski having a full workload, Brady was able to get rid of the ball quickly and move the Patriots down the field. Edelman was not available the first time the Patriots played the Broncos this season and the team struggled at times to move the ball against a great defense. With him back, the Patriots will be able to put up points much easier.

On the other end of the spectrum, Manning didn’t play terrible, but he did not look like a quarterback capable of winning this week. He threw for 222 yards, but the Denver offense was quiet for most of the game and if not for a key fumble by Fitz Toussaint in the fourth quarter, they might have lost.

In order to win this week, the Broncos cannot rely on Manning. They will need big games out of Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson at running back. In order to counter this, the Patriots front seven will need to match the Denver running backs in the running and passing game. The Patriots’ ability to do this will come down to two players up front, Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower. This is significant because the first time these two teams matched up Collins did not play and Hightower left early with an injury.

They were both on the field for most of the Divisional Round game. The Chiefs had 135 yards rushing, but 44 of those were on Alex Smith scrambles or designed runs. The Kansas City running backs combined for 28 yards receiving as well, putting their overall yardage output at 119. If the Patriots can hold the Denver backs to that number, it is unlikely the Denver offense will be able to put up more points than the Patriots.

Against the Steelers, Hillman or Anderson carried the ball on 31 of 70 offensive snaps and were also targeted four times in the passing game. Together, that is 50 percent of the offensive snaps that running backs were the focus. Denver didn’t show much ability to get the ball downfield outside of one catch by Emmanuel Sanders that went for 34 yards and one catch by Bennie Fowler that went for 31 yards. However, both of those passes traveled fewer than 20 yards from the line of scrimmage.

This is where Collins and Hightower come into play. The Patriots love to use both of them to blitz the A gap (between the center and the guard) to either create pressure up the middle or blow up run plays. Hightower can also cover well and Collins is an excellent coverage linebacker.

 

Collins and Hightower will need to makes plays in order to contain the Denver running backs. It almost sounds blasphemous to suggest that a team should force Manning to beat them, but that’s what this season has come down to. The more the Patriots can make Manning throw the ball downfield from the pocket the better. Eliminating the run game and his safety valves in the passing game will make it difficult for Denver to keep pace with New England.

Despite having an excellent defense, the Broncos are still going to need to put up points. If Collins and Hightower play well throughout the game, the Broncos won’t have enough juice to reach Super Bowl 50.

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Quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning shake hands after Brady led his team back from a 24-0 deficit in a shocking win against the Broncos. Brady will be looking for another victory this weekend against his rival. (Getty Images)

1. Patriots win – Bring on Peyton and the Un-spiral:

MISC

* How nice was it to see Gronk, Amendola and Edelman in the first huddle
* Red seats empty to start the second half in a playoff game
* I’ve always thought in any team sport if you get to the championship game of your conference the season was a huge success
* No superstar in the history of sports (I don’t think this is hyperbole) gets cheap shot more than Tom Brady (maybe Orr with stuck out knees)
* Lucky for the NFL that Chandler Jones wasn’t the Patriots nominee for the Walter Payton award

OFFENSE

* Amazing audible by Brady to flip play to stop and go for Gronk TD
* What a message to the team when Brady is sacrificing his body for the greater good
* I think they can get rid of the fake end around and lob pass into the flat
* Scott Chandler along for the ride
* Almost saw Brandon LaFell’s head blow up when Brady try to audible at the end of the third quarter Continue reading Connelly’s Top Ten: Peyton-Brady — What Could be Better? »

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Patriots, Chiefs

1.Patriots – KC Preview:

* First time Patriots ever played the Chiefs in postseason – look at #4 below

* During 11 game winning streak – 8 wins against non-playoff teams

* KC Interceptions 22 to 7 (ranked 2nd / ranked 1st)

* Completion %: 66% to 57%

* Alex Smith has less rushing TD’s than Brady 2-3

* No return for TD’s

* Kicker Cairo Santos – 13-19 from 40 yards out (missed two extra points)

* Seven defenders with at least four sacks (get ready Tom)

* Defender Marcus Peters has 26 deflections – seems like a lot

* Kelce killed Pats last year (8 receptions / 93 yards / 1 TD) Continue reading Connelly’s Top Ten: Hank Stram Not Walking Thru that Door »

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Chandler-jones

According to police records and several media outlets, Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones was hospitalized on Sunday due to a medical emergency. The cause of the hospitalization has not been made public.

Jones arrived at the Foxborough police department on Sunday morning and was evaluated by five officers and subsequently taken to the hospital. An officer was also sent to Jones’ home in order to “secure the residence.”

While acknowledging that Jones had been to the hospital, the Patriots said in a statement that Jones had shown up for work on Monday and not missed any meetings or practice.  The Foxborough Police Department initially did not acknowledge that it dealt with Jones but later did and added that it was due to a “medical call.”

At this point, details are not easy to come across and it does not appear that this incident will affect Jones’ status for the team’s playoff game on Saturday. Things could change between now and then and this story bears monitoring over the next several days.

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Bill Belichick

1. Around the NFL Playoffs:

* All four road teams win – yikes

* Actually felt bad for Hoyer yesterday (are we sure JJ Watt is a little bit over-rated?)

* Goodell at Minnesota – checking on PSI?

* Watching the NBC game with no rooting interest – I must admit that Collinsworth is the best analyst

* How lucky is Seattle in the playoffs – Green Bay drops onside kick last year / this year Minnesota kicker misses chip shot

* Punk Joey Porter who is the linebacker coach made the biggest play of the year for the Steelers going out on the field for no reason and baiting the Bengals into a 15 yard penalty

2. Bad Karma:

* Burfict is an animal (Dale Hunter x 2) – he will go down as the most out of control player in sports history and will forever be remembered for Saturday night Continue reading Connelly’s Top Ten: Another Bad Weekend for Patriots »

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Julian Edelman

There’s good news on the injury front for the Patriots, according to WHDH Sports Director Joe Amorosino.

Wide receiver Julian Edelman has been cleared to play in Saturday’s game against the Chiefs. Continue reading Julian Edelman Cleared to Play Against Chiefs »

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