By Steve Silverman
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The AFC Championship Game features two Hall of Fame quarterbacks who will try to outdo each other in a classic chess match.
Of course, Tom Brady is not merely going to try to get the best of Peyton Manning by himself. He has Bill Belichick guiding him, and that’s probably the best asset the New England Patriots have going for them.
If we are going to be completely honest, Manning goes it alone for the Denver Broncos. When it comes to game planning and calling plays, Manning is his own offensive coordinator. This is no insult to Adam Gase, the Broncos’ offensive coordinator, but he can do little but offer a suggestion or two along the way to his quarterback.
The Patriots had been hoping to build their attack around tight end Rob Gronkowski. But when he went out of the lineup with his ACL injury in December, Belichick was prepared. He knew the New England receivers were not good enough to lead the way if the Patriots were going to make a deep run in the playoffs.
Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and running back Shane Vereen are all complementary pieces. Belichick realized that, and he has given Brady a full-fledged running game. By combining the power running of LeGarrette Blount and the versatility of Stevan Ridley, the Patriots have gotten back to an interior running game.
The Pats used that to bludgeon the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional playoff game, and it should be the anchor of their attack against the Broncos. Blount is a 255-pound battering ram who lowers his shoulders and can overpower the first wall of tacklers. He is getting plenty of help from New England’s savvy offensive line, but Blount is capable of winning the battle on his own. Once he gets into the secondary, he has the speed to run away from the tackler.
Blount does not have quickness, but he does have power and speed. Ridley has quickness. He is a one-cut-and-go type of runner. The Pats often change their blocking scheme depending on which back is running the ball.
When Ridley runs the ball, he needs the offensive line to fire out hard and get the defense on its heels. Blount’s big runs usually come on counter plays that feature center Logan Mankins pulling and sealing the edge.
Once the Patriots establish their running game, it becomes a lot easier for Brady to get his passing game going. Edelman is not going to stretch the defense, but he can get open on short- and medium-range passes and he will catch the ball on the move.
Amendola has been troubled by injuries throughout his career, but he has been healthier in the second half of the season than he’s been in previous points in his career. He knows how to beat the initial jam.
If the Patriots can establish their run and draw Denver free safety Mike Huff in by a step or two, that’s when they could hit a big passing play and cause problems for the Broncos.
Denver was the dominant team in the AFC this year as Manning came out firing in Week 1. The Broncos had a couple of hiccups along the way, but this team has been fueled by last year’s loss in the divisional playoffs to the Baltimore Ravens.
They know that if they don’t get to the Super Bowl their season will be looked at as a failure.
Manning may not have Belichick on his side, but he has superior firepower at the receiver position with Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and tight end Julius Thomas.
The Pats have a top cover man in Aqib Talib, but he can’t cover all of them. The Pats may move him around, but no quarterback is more adept at picking out a defense’s soft spot than Manning. He won’t have a problem finding the favorable matchup.
That’s a huge advantage. Manning also gets plenty of help from Knowshon Moreno, who punished the Patriots with 224 rushing yards in their November meeting.
Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has perhaps the most difficult assignment of anyone associated with this game. Manning threw 55 touchdown passes during the season, the most that any quarterback has ever thrown.
The Broncos have too much receiving talent and a punishing running attack. The Patriots may be able to hold their own or even get the edge in the mental battle, but they have a huge talent gap to overcome if they are going to earn a position in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Brady and Belichick will join the battle, but they don’t have enough weapons to overcome this problem. The AFC Championship looks like the end of the line for New England.
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