AFC Championship Preview: Broncos Offense vs Patriots Defense

The Peyton Manning-Tom Brady rivalry is one of the greatest the NFL has ever seen. It fills headlines, draws ratings on television, and is one of the more polarizing debates in all of sports. However, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have never, and will never, be on the field at the same time (although that would be interesting). Peyton doesn’t gameplan for Tom, and Tom doesn’t gameplan for Peyton. So with that being the case, let’s take a look at the matchups we’ll actually see on Sunday.

Peyton Manning had a very impressive game last week against the Chargers. His ball placement was as good as it’s ever been. His numbers weren’t as ridiculous as they’ve been all season (25-36, 230 yds, 2 TD, 1 INT), but he didn’t exactly get a ton of help from his receivers, who dropped several passes.

What’s more, Manning made two big throws on two of the most critical plays of the game. The first was on 3rd and 17, with the Chargers mounting a furious comeback. The impressive part about this throw was not the actual pass itself, but rather, it was how Manning made it under duress, with a collapsing pocket around him and very little space to step into his throw.

Manning in Pocket
Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass
The conversion a few plays later on 3rd and 6 all but sealed the game. Manning had Julius Thomas split wide with a corner over him. Manning spotted this and appeared to change the play at the line, knowing he had a mismatch with Thomas’s big body on a corner. The result looked simple on television, but the anticipation by Manning was once again outstanding. Look where Thomas is when Manning starts his throwing motion.
Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass
Doesn’t exactly look wide open, does he? Tough to defend that level of anticipation.

Last Sunday, Peyton Manning was as on-point as you’ll ever see any quarterback. But he’ll have to be just as good, if not better, to try and escape with a victory against New England this weekend. He’ll also need a little help from his teammates.

Contrary to popular belief, the Patriots are not a talentless group of hacks on a defense. Sure they’ve been decimated by injury. But this team is a perfect example of why the Patriots continue to be good year in and year out no matter what the situation. They might not ever have the biggest star in the league, but their lowest common denominator is almost always better than the other team’s – a tribute to Bill Belichick’s ability to spot and develop talent.

This year, even with the injuries, New England still has the players to match up with the Broncos’ passing game. They also have the best coach of the last 25 years (at very least) in Belichick.

The Patriots scheme on defense always varies based on opponent and situation. The one thing that does stay the same is that New England will make offenses play left-handed. They will attempt to do whatever they can to take away the so-called A-game of an offense. No player is more important to this formula than cornerback Aqib Talib.

Talib has been used all season to take away the opposing team’s best receiver. He’s covered Panthers receiver Steve Smith on the outside, Saints tight end Jimmy Graham who plays everywhere, and Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, who plays primarily inside the numbers but is a dangerous vertical threat.

Against the Broncos in Week 12, Talib spent much of his time on Demaryius Thomas. That should figure to be the case again this Sunday.

The Patriots like to play a lot of man press across the board. They did so against Denver earlier in the season. They did so against the Colts last week. They don’t care who the matchup is, they’re going to play man and disrupt the timing of the passing game, something that is so vital to Peyton Manning and the Broncos.

The counter to this is that Denver’s receivers will have to win against man coverage. The Broncos were unable to do so on a consistent basis in Week 12. Expect the Patriots to take a similar approach this Sunday. They’ll likely play man vs Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker and then bracket Wes Welker (especially on 3rd down). New England will take their chances that the matchup of Talib on Demaryius will work in their favor, and that Eric Decker won’t be able to win off the line vs press coverage, something he’s struggled with all season. The X-factor in this game, though, is tight end Julius Thomas.

Julius Thomas did not play when these teams met in Week 12. He is a mismatch concern for most teams. With Wes Welker back in the lineup last week vs San Diego and drawing double coverage on almost every 3rd down, Orange Julius saw a lot of one-on-one matchups. Peyton Manning worked this to his favor.

The Patriots do have an answer for Thomas though – rookie LB Jamie Collins. Collins is 6’ 3” and 250 lbs, but he has the athleticism of a defensive back. He easily covered Colts Tight End Coby Fleener in the Divisional round, running stride-for-stride with him, and then playing the ball like a top flight defensive back. His interception in the 4th quarter was very impressive as he turned his head while the ball was in the air, still played the receiver, and then had the coordination to react quickly and actually catch the ball.

On a much lower profile play earlier in the game, he was aligned over Coby Fleener on the outside. Not only did Collins run stride-for-stride again, but when the ball was thrown to Fleener’s back shoulder, Collins turned his hips around and ended up in a better position to make a play on the ball than Fleener. Some DBs can’t do this as well as Collins did.

Julius Thomas offers a better skillset than Fleener, so this should be a fun matchup to watch on Sunday.

In Week 12, the Broncos torched the Patriots on the ground, rushing for 280 yards. A large part of this was that the Pats were so deadest on taking away the passing game. Belichick clearly gameplanned with the thought of taking away all short and intermediate passes and disrupting the timing of Denver’s air attack. They conceded the run with 6 defenders in the box on almost every play. Their defensive tackles got pushed around, yielding lots of easy yards up the middle. Somehow, they still managed to find a way to win.

It would be tough to imagine Belichick conceding the run so much in this game. At the same time, the Broncos running game is not the best aspect of their offense. Belichick will likely still make the Broncos have to win with their B-game. One way or another, he will do whatever he can to make Peyton Manning’s afternoon a difficult one.

The Patriots have had so much success on defense over the years because they put pressure on their opponents. Mentally and physically, the quarterback, offensive line, running back, and receivers all have to be at the top of their games against the Patriots. That won’t change this Sunday. Nothing will come easy for the Broncos offense.

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