by Jim Bearor
There are only three weeks left of football – maybe the best football we’ve seen all year – but still, the NFL season is almost over, and that sucks. As excited as I am to see a new champion emerge, I am equally as scared to go about my life without football for the next several months, and I know there are thousands of fans who feel the same way.
Knowing the end is near changes how we view things. Playoff games are already overanalyzed, and the magnifying glass only gets bigger as the weeks go by. Here we are, the day before the AFC and NFC Championship Games, and every aspect of both games has been broken down. All positional matchups have already been covered, and I’m sure that every possible result has been predicted by one “expert” or another. This makes it awful tough for me to offer a “unique take” on it all, but I’ll give it a whack anyway.
I firmly believe that despite the high-profile quarterbacks on either end, the AFC Title game will be won at –or near – the line of scrimmage. More specifically, here are a couple positional matchups that deserve more attention.
When the Patriots have the ball
The offensive line of New England has improved a great deal as the season has gone on. Although it is the same patchwork group that allowed Brady to be sacked 40 times in the regular season, their suddenly dominant run blocking has defined the team’s playoff run to this point. How well they handle Denver’s defensive line on inside handoffs – primarily Terrance Knighton and Shawn Phillips – will determine what role the Broncos linebackers will play. If the Patriots have difficulty moving the ball inside, that frees up Linebackers Trevathan and Woodyard to focus on pass coverage.
Another matchup that draws my attention is WR Danny Amendola versus Champ Bailey. While I’m not positive that this is how Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio will play things, I’m fairly certain that CB Rodgers-Cromartie will be tasked with keeping the versatile Julian Edelman in check. If this is how it works out, I think Amendola’s speed creates major problems for an aging Bailey. Maybe he will get some extra safety help, which could leave DRC and Edelman 1-on-1. Regardless of how they choose to defend the two small, speedy wideouts, the Broncos are going to have their hands full without starting Corner Chris Harris in the lineup
When the Broncos have the ball
The injuries to Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork will most likely become targets for the Denver offense, which means Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, and Jamie Collins have a lot of slack to pick up – and in recent weeks, they’ve done exactly that. But keeping tabs on Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball without sending too many defenders is crucial, as the Pats will need to dedicate most of their resources to pass coverage if they have any hope of containing Thomas, Thomas, Decker, and Welker.
In my opinion, the biggest x-factor for the Broncos is TE Julius Thomas. His size and pass-catching ability often creates drastic mismatches for opposing defenses, but the Patriots may have an answer for him. New England met a similar threat in Week 6 when they faced Jimmy Graham and the Saints. Graham was held without a catch by physical CB Aqib Talib, and I feel like Thomas might be handled the same way. I could be wrong though, as Jamie Collins did a great job last week against Colby Fleener. But Fleener isn’t quite Thomas, so the Pats must either risk that matchup or pull Talib off of Decker or the other Thomas. Neither of these scenarios bode well for New England.
Belichick has always had Peyton’s number in the playoffs, but Peyton has never had so much talent around him. Denver’s weapons in the passing game will spread New England’s defense thin, allowing Moreno and Ball to run wild. I also expect the Patriots to move the ball well, relying heavily on the run game again. Amendola hauls in a couple long balls, and Edelman will perform at about the level that is expected from him. However, they will not be able to match Denver’s scoring pace, leading to Tom Brady seeing more pressure as New England falls behind and is forced to abandon the ground game.
Denver wins 38-27
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