AFC Championship Game Preview: New England at Denver

Tonight’s AFC Championship game could be better known as Tom Brady v Peyton Manning XV

The Match-up

New England Patriots (12-4) @ Denver Broncos (13-3)

Sports Authority Field at Mile High

3.00 PM (ET) Kick Off

The AFC Championship game sees Tom Brady and Peyton Manning square off for the fifteenth time in their NFL careers and for the fourth time in an AFC Championship game. The two teams who finished the regular season with the best records in the conference have made it to this point, which should ensure the quality of the game is of the highest level. Broncos coach John Fox will be looking to make it back to the Superbowl after his one and only appearance to date in 2004, ironically against these same Bill Belichick led Patriots. It was Belichick who triumphed on that day against the Carolina Panthers to earn his second Championship ring, time will tell if Belichick Fox in the play-offs once more tonight.

When New England has the ball..

As the season has progressed the Patriots have moved away from the passing game to become a team who specialise in moving the ball on the ground, in no small part thanks to the exploits of LeGarrette Blount. Blount scored seven touchdowns during the regular season, a total he more than halved with four scores last week against Indianapolis. Stevan Ridley is another threat on the ground for New England and Ridley himself scored seven times on the ground in 2013.

With Rob Gronkowski done for the season and Aaron Hernandez in jail Belichick and Brady have had to adjust their approach on offense after their success over the past couple of years out of two tight end sets. Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman have stepped up at wide receiver and Edelman has been the perfect replacement for Wes Welker, now with Denver of course, by catching 105 balls during the regular season. He caught six more last week against the Colts and although he doesn’t have a great deal of size or speed he appears to have become Brady’s favoured option in the passing game.

Denver have had to cope with key injuries of their own on defense, with cornerback Champ Bailey for one missing most of the season – though he’s back in action and near full fitness after a cameo last week against San Diego. Von Miller hasn’t been quite so fortunate and the Broncos will have to cope without their star pass rusher against New England and in the Superbowl, should they get that far. Shaun Phillips assumes the role of pass rusher in chief and the former Charger was able to record two sacks last week against his former team. Corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is one of the fastest players in the NFL and will likely be assigned the task of keeping the fleet of foot Amendola in check.

When Denver has the ball..

Peyton Manning has a poor record against Bill Belichick led defenses, going just 4-10 against the defensive guru in his career. However he may be playing the best football of his life and threw an NFL record 55 touchdowns this season, breaking Tom Brady’s record which had stood since 2007. Knowshon Moreno and Monte Ball combine to provide Manning with a reliable rushing attack with the diminutive Ball is more of a threat as a receiver out of the backfield than Moreno, while the latter tends the shoulder most of the load rushing the football.

While Ball and Moreno are serviceable players it’s out wide where Manning really does have an embarrassment of riches, from the likes of Welker to Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas. The trio had 10, 11 and 14 touchdown receptions on the year respectively and while none are what you might consider elite players at the position all have good hands and are also intelligent route runners. Patriots corner Aqib Talib is a physical defender who can lock up one side of the field, however New England’s quality behind him is debatable beyond Alfonzo Dennard, who recorded two interceptions against Andrew Luck and the Colts last weekend. The Patriots defense is greater than the sum of its parts, thanks in large part to Belichick, and seems to revel in it’s relative ‘underdog’ status.

Special Teams

Pats kicker Stephen Gostkowski is one of the leagues most consistent players at his position and missed just three field goal attempts all season (all from over 40 yards). However his opposite number Matt Prater was even better in 2013, missing just one kick all year and hitting a 64 yard field goal to break the NFL record.

In the return game Denver appear to have the edge, as Trindon Holliday more than makes up for his lack of size with his game changing speed and the mighty mite managed to take both a kick and punt return back to the house during the regular season. The Broncos did have two punts blocked during the year, so there might be a weakness there New England looks to exploit.

Injury Report

New England wide receivers Kenbrell Thompkins (foot/concussion) and Aaron Dobson (foot) are both questionable to play, as is punter Ryan Allen (shoulder).

Denver wide-out Demaryius Thomas (calf) is listed as probable for the game.

Weather

Partly sunny skies and temperatures around an unseasonal 60 degrees are forecast at kick off time in Denver tonight.

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