Contrary to the media hype, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will not be lining up to rush Peyton Manning when he drops back to pass. And, Denver's QB will not be covering Julian Edelman on New England pass plays.
The Brady vs. Manning narrative is, as always, overstated. That being said, this Sunday’s AFC Championship game will be a fascinating chess match, with Manning duking it out with Patriots' head coach Bill Belichick, and on the other side, Tom Brady navigating the ferocious Denver defense.
The Patriots are coming off a comprehensive victory against the Kansas City Chiefs in which Tom Brady controlled the tempo of the game, throwing the ball 42 times. Coach Belichick has never been shy about committing to either the run or the pass - depending on what works best against his opposition’s weaknesses. Last year, Belichick called 40 run plays in their AFC Championship matchup with the Indianapolis Colts, betting, correctly, that the Colts could not stop the Patriots' rush attack.
This week, Belichick has the challenge of game planning for the No. 1 ranked defense in terms of DVOA, a stat which measures the effectiveness of a defense in terms of limiting points and yards, adjusted for the opposition. Broken down, Denver’s defense is the best in terms of defending the pass and fourth in defending the run, so finding a soft spot will be tricky for the Patriots.
Denver will use outside linebackers Von Miller and Demarcus Ware in tandem to disrupt the timing of the Patriots’ route patterns. This season, Ware and Miller combined for 18.5 sacks, 5 forced fumbles and 4 recoveries and their tenaciousness contributed to the 27 takeaways the defense forced. The two of them will have to get to Brady as often as possible to unnerve the veteran quarterback.
What New England does on offense, with their team nearing full strength, is anyone’s guess. The Patriots have been pass heavy this season, relying on Tom Brady who had a spectacular year, throwing for 4,770 yards and 36 touchdowns, third and first in the league respectively. The health of Rob Gronkowski has been imperative to Brady as well, as the all-pro tight end managed 1,176 yards this season and 11 touchdowns despite playing 15 games, many of them hurt.
Denver is going to have its hands full trying to contain Gronk. If the defense commits to shutting him down through double coverage, then they will be liable to give up big plays on the outside to wide receiver Edelman or from running backs out of the backfield. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is fully aware of his challenge this week when he met with reporters.
"That's a problem for everybody, obviously. You'd like to double-cover everybody they have, but you can't do it all the time," Phillips said, reported the Denver Post. "They split [Gronkowski] out a lot. That gives you the problems because of his size. When he's inside you can jam him a little bit more."
Denver’s best chance is to be overly physical with Gronk, but even that may not be enough. On offense, Peyton’s Manning ability to throw downfield will be integral to their success. It is likely New England will try to force Denver into third and longs and test Manning’s arm strength, which will be under scrutiny. If Manning cannot demonstrate that he can get the ball down the field, the Patriots will prey on the short routes and force turnovers.
The Broncos are the better all-around team, with more offensive weapons and a stronger defense. That being said, the Patriots have something Denver does not have, "Touchdown Tom," who still has his full set of skills. The Patriots struggle in Denver, but Brady wills a victory in Denver and the Patriots move forward to defend their Super Bowl title on Feb. 7 in Santa Clara, Calif.