New England Patriots (13-4) at Denver Broncos (13-4)
AFC championship game
Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET on CBS
PATRIOTS AT A GLANCE
How they got here: The Patriots were once 10-0 and some were comparing them to New England’s 2007 team, arguably the greatest team ever (albeit without a championship). Then the Patriots didn’t even end up getting the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
The season took a sharp turn during a dramatic Sunday night loss at the Broncos on Nov. 29. The Patriots lost four of their last six regular-season games. Injuries played a huge role in that slump. The Patriots looked a lot healthier in a 27-20 divisional playoff win over the Kansas City Chiefs last week. The defending champs are one win from going to their seventh Super Bowl in the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era, which would be an unbelievable accomplishment.
Key player: The Patriots were without linebacker Jamie Collins in the first meeting with the Broncos. That’s no small thing. Collins is one of the NFL’s best linebackers. Few linebackers in the league are as well rounded as Collins. He can cover, rush the quarterback and is very good against the run. In a game that the Broncos offense will probably play close to the line of scrimmage, Collins has a chance to make a massive impact.
Why they’ll win: The Patriots are going to put a lot of pressure on the Broncos’ offense. Until the Broncos show they can create anything vertically in the passing game, it makes sense to press the receivers and load up against the run as well. And New England has a very good, sound defense. Offensively, the Patriots looked a lot better with Julian Edelman back in the lineup. The Patriots are favored to win for a good reason. They’re battle tested, as healthy as they’ve been in weeks, and have the great Brady running the show.
Why they’ll lose: One concern is facing Denver’s defense with very little balance on offense. The Patriots didn’t even try to run the ball last week against the Chiefs, and while that was a design of the game plan, it doesn’t seem like they will get very much from the running game from here on out. Steven Jackson is averaging 2.4 yards per carry since joining the Patriots. That’s not ideal against a Broncos defense that was first in the NFL in passing yards allowed and first in sacks in the regular season.
Keep in mind: The Patriots have struggled in Denver during the Brady-Belichick era. In games Brady has started, New England is just 2-6 at Denver. That doesn’t necessarily matter for this game — that 31-20 loss in 2001 isn’t providing any clues to this game, for example — but Brady and the Patriots have lost in Denver this season, and in the AFC championship game at the end of the 2013 season.
BRONCOS AT A GLANCE
How they got here: It’s a good bet that Sunday’s game will be close, because the Broncos only play close games. Denver is a staggering 10-3 in games decided by seven or fewer points. That tells us that Denver has played just four games all season that haven’t been decided by a touchdown or less, and that they’re very comfortable in tight situations. They won another close game on Sunday, mounting a fourth-quarter comeback to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers. One of their close wins was an overtime victory against the Patriots in Week 12.
Key player: Von Miller didn’t have a huge divisional round game, but he’s still the key to the Broncos defense. Miller, who had a sack against the Patriots in the first meeting but didn’t have a huge impact overall, will be a focal point of New England’s protection on Sunday. Miller had 11 sacks this season, has 60 in his five-year career, and a big AFC title game wouldn’t be bad for him before he’s slated to hit free agency. The Patriots’ offensive line has had protection issues, especially late in the season, although Brady was not sacked against the Chiefs and rarely touched. Miller is the kind of player who can take over a game.
Why they’ll win: The Broncos have to feel good they’re at home for this one. Their defense has been outstanding all season and will need to be on Sunday. Peyton Manning needs to play a mistake-free game, as he did against the Steelers, and the running game will have to sustain drives. Winning the turnover battle is crucial to the Broncos, and they have a defense that can do that.
Why they’ll lose: The Broncos offense is still unimpressive. There were a ton of drops on Sunday, the running game didn’t do much, and they won’t create a ton of big plays in the passing game. Denver’s first and only touchdown against the Steelers came with three minutes left. The Broncos won’t beat the Patriots kicking field goals. But can they score touchdowns against a very good Patriots defense?
Keep in mind: The Broncos had 179 yards rushing against the Patriots in the first meeting, with a 5.6-yard average. Forget about the quarterback story in Denver, because the Broncos aren’t winning this game with a huge passing game. They need to run the ball effectively to knock off the Patriots.
Denver – Upside. When analysing sports, whether it be Horses, humans or cars were always looking for upside. What improvement is left moving forward. To me, the Denver Bronco’s find themselves in the Championship game without putting 4 quarters together the entire season. They were 7-0 at the start of the year and you couldn’t help but ask how? They have been offensively a mess for most of the year, yet still find ways to win. Peyton looked sharp last week while his receivers let him down, that won’t happen again today in Denver. We think the Bronco’s are peaking and flying under the radar heading into Super bowl XVII, whilst Quarterback controversy has stolen the headlines of late, the Bronco’s have been quietly rolling along and maybe, just maybe send Peyton out on top.