AFC Championship Preview: Sheriff Noodle’s Last Ride

Welcome to the main event, folks, the AFC Championship preview! Yet another meeting, and quite possibly (read: dear god hopefully) the last between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will be the cherry on top of this season’s AFC playoff race. The history and respect shared between these two quarterbacks can overcome the hatred of even their most rabid fans and it’s got me in a mood for some kindness and bridge re-building. You may remember that earlier this season I introduced my final and perfected moniker for Denver’s elderly signal caller – Mr. Noodle. I feel as if I should apologize to Peyton fans everywhere because, let’s face it, this nickname is simply unfair to the man who many regard as the greatest regular season quarterback of all time – with great reason! Peyton Manning has long been credited with the greatest mind in the football world and his ability to remember exact plays from years and years in the past has made his intelligence legend. Combined with his command of the team on the field and respect he earns from teammates, Manning was dubbed “The Sheriff”. For this reason I have respectfully revised my affectionate name for Manning to “Sheriff Noodle”, because as much as the guy has done in the past he still can’t throw 20 yards down the field and should have retired after last season. Honesty can only be so kind, okay people?

Since Manning returned to football after four neck surgeries and totally didn’t take HGH to help, the NFL’s most storied rivalry took a turn from respectful co-admiration between two players to contemptuous battles between two teams who really do not enjoy each other’s company. Patriots and Broncos fans have built a strong dislike for each other in the few seasons since Manning’s return, helped along by each team’s success and rightful places as the top teams in the AFC. I experienced this tension first-hand when I traveled to Colorado and saw the Patriots’ first game in Denver this season, a Week 12 overtime loss (more about that later).  You’ve probably guessed that there will be PLENTY to discuss about Sunday’s AFC matchup, so let’s quit the jibber jabber and get into it!

Head-to-Head History

Unless you have spent your life under some sort of large stone structure or are just a really good friend and continue to read this blog despite your lack of knowledge about and general indifference towards the NFL (lookin’ at you, Sam and Kat!) then you know Brady and Manning have the most extensive history between any two players in league history. Let’s start with a lightning round to get you all caught up:

  • Sunday’s game will be Tom Brady and Peyton Manning’s SEVENTEENTH head-to-head matchup. Brady leads the series 11-5   anotherone
  • This season’s AFC Championship will be the pair’s FIFTH meeting in the playoffs and their fourth time facing off in the AFC Championship. The postseason series is tied 2-2.                                                     anotherone
  • Either Brady or Manning will have represented the AFC in EIGHT of the last THIRTEEN Super Bowls come February 7. Brady has appeared in FIVE Super Bowls since 2003, Manning THREE.                               anotherone
  • This Sunday’s AFC Championship will be New England’s FIFTH straight appearance in the game and a win would provide their NFL-record NINTH Super Bowl appearance.                                                                anotherone
  • Brady and Manning have a combined FIVE Super Bowl wins, and by combined I mean Brady has four and Manning has just one, which sadly isn’t even the most at his own Thanksgiving dinner. Brady is 4-2 in Super Bowls, Manning 1-2.

Based on recent history between Denver and New England, the Patriots need to be on high alert to avoid any injuries this Sunday. The teams’ last two matchups, a Denver AFC Championship win and the aforementioned overtime debacle this season, have been impacted more by players not on the field than those playing in the games. When the injury-stricken, over-achieving Patriots marched into Denver for a chance to play in Super Bowl XLIX they knew that their defense, led by Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib, could keep them in the game despite their lack of offensive weapons. That assurance left them late in the first quarter when Broncos receiver Benedict Welker “accidentally” smashed Talib’s ribs with his helmet while running across the middle of the field on a clearly designed play. The Denver offense that had struggled to move the ball was suddenly effective and potent, scoring 23 of 26 points after Talib left the game. Manning threw for 289 yards and two touchdowns with Talib on the sideline and Demaryius Thomas amassed 134 yards and a touchdown once matched up with now-unemployed cornerback Alfonzo Dennard.

During Thanksgiving weekend in Denver, a weekend which I myself spent in Colorado (I’ve gotta say it was awesome, shoutout to Cole Boy) the Patriots came to town as the undefeated top team in the AFC. After a slew of unfortunate and significant injuries, Tom Brady was down to Scott Chandler, James White, and a couple of rookie receivers to support Rob Gronkowski in the passing game. Similarly, the defense was lacking in depth after linebackers and defensive linemen alike had fallen out of the rotation because of injury. Denver struggled to move the ball until Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower left the game with a knee injury right before halftime. The Broncos had gained only 43 yards on 15 carries with Hightower on the field. In his absence? 136 yards and three TD on just 17 carries. Unfortunately, he would not be the last impact player to be knocked out of the game.

In the fourth quarter, with the Broncos and Patriots in a deadlock, Rob Gronkowski reached down to catch a pass from Tom Brady when Denver defensive back Darian Stewart hit Gronkowski’s knee directly with his helmet, forcing him to be carted off of the field and miss the next week’s game in addition to being unable to return to the field that night. Once again a Broncos helmet had found its way to the most vulnerable body part of the one player New England could not afford to lose. As he was carted off of the field, the All-Pro tight end was treated to a chorus of jeers from the poor excuses for humans that the Broncos call fans. The Patriots struggled to move the ball after Gronk’s injury, in part because of absolutely horrible officiating, and went on to lose in overtime. Gronkowski is at a particularly high risk of injury this Sunday, as New England’s AFC rivals have been known to unabashedly target his previously injured knees. Broncos safety T.J. Ward’s claim to fame as a member of the Cleveland Browns was ending Gronkowski’s season in December of 2013 by – you guessed it! – diving at his knees, resulting in a torn right ACL for the record-setting tight end. Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. commented earlier this week that Denver’s plan for stopping Gronk is to “hit him in his knees” and “take out his legs”. Out of every defensive unit in the NFL it seems that only Denver’s can’t seem to find any other way to tackle Gronkowski, but hey maybe that’s just none of my business.

Another interesting tidbit that highlights Manning’s decline compared to Brady’s extended prime: in one game in Denver this season, Brady threw three touchdown passes. In six games in Denver this season, Manning threw one touchdown pass. The cold temperatures on the field this Sunday will lend more to an advantage for Brady than any sort of home field help for Manning, seeing as how Manning is 0-5 in games where the on-field temperature is lower than 40 degrees. Finally, and possibly most foretelling, Tom Brady is 3-0 when facing the NFL’s #1 rated defense in the postseason. Can you guess who had the #1 defense this season? * Dora the Explorer-esque pause where I let you respond even though I can’t hear you and will give the same answer regardless of what you may be saying* That’s right, the Denver Broncos! It’s also worth noting that Brady is 4-0 against the Broncos when he has Edelman and Gronkowski on the field together.

Previous Win

Much like their recent victories over the Patriots, Denver’s Divisional Round win against Pittsburgh was heavily impacted by injured players who could not suit up for the game. I sincerely hope Denver’s defensive coordinator sent Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict some sort of thank you card because he single-handedly devastated the Steelers’ offense in their Wild Card showdown by taking a brutal shot to Antonio Brown’s head and separating Ben Roeslithberger’s shoulder on a sack. Burfict also tackled Le’Veon Bell during the play when Pittsburgh’s star tore his ACL earlier in the season, but of course that didn’t directly affect last Sunday’s game.

For all of the hype surrounding Denver’s all-star secondary, one stat from the divisional round should worry them more than anything. Steelers receivers had three of the five longest yards after catch gains of the weekend, Martavis Bryant leading the pack with 42 yards after the catch on one play. This was all without the NFL’s leader in YAC Antonio Brown and a virtually non-existent run game because I forgot to mention that Pittsburgh was also without their lead running back DeAngelo Williams. The Steelers somehow managed to put together seven drives of 40 or more yards without the league’s best receiver, their starting back, and their quarterback’s shoulder still separated.

Conversely, the Broncos offense at full strength only managed two drives of forty or more yards and scored four times when it only needed to move 30 or less yards. Denver’s dependence on field position was more evident than ever on Sunday against Pittsburgh and would have been their undoing had the defense not made yet another miracle turnover to give the offense a chance to win at the end of the game.

As for the Patriots, it was business as usual for Tom Brady and the offense with Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and left tackle Sebastian Vollmer back in the starting lineup. New England never scored less than 27 points in the regular season with both Gronk and Edelman on the field, reaching the benchmark yet again in their 27-20 divisional victory over Kansas City. Outside of a few dropped passes from the returning receivers, the Patriots offense hummed along like it had never been broken up by injury, scoring on their first drive of the game and never relinquishing the lead from there on out. Tom Brady was able to neutralize the vaunted Chiefs pass rush by throwing the ball quickly with all of his weapons on the field. The result: zero sacks and zero turnovers for Tamba Hali, Eric Berry and Co. Romeo Crennel’s exotic pass rush only confirmed again and again the truth in the NFL adage: “Do not blitz Tom Brady”. Brady’s ability to read the defense and anticipate who would be coming after him on any given play allowed him to dump the ball to receivers and backs left open in the space vacated by blitzing linebackers and safeties.

One red flag for Matt Patricia’s defense was Kansas City’s alarming third down conversion rate. The Chiefs gained 27 first downs on Saturday, usually after losing yardage on first and/or second down. At a glance, it may seem as though New England’s pass rush failed to pressure Alex Smith, but in reality Smith used his athletic ability to evade defensive linemen and linebackers in the backfield, then find receivers downfield after extending the play by four or five seconds. Smith was also able to escape the pocket and scramble on third and long when the majority of New England’s defensive backs and linebackers were downfield defending the pass. While New England will definitely need to address these issues with a defense that did an otherwise stellar job against the run on first and second downs, they shouldn’t have to worry too much about Manning evading defenders and extending plays with his feet…or scrambling…or throwing downfield, for that matter, now that you mention it.

Key Matchups and Factors

The key to Denver’s victories this season starts and ends with their defense. When the defense can limit an opponent to less than 20 points and allow the offense to hang around, keeping their opponent’s lead within a touchdown, the Broncos are confident that they can force a crucial turnover in the fourth quarter that will decide the game. New England’s offense will be the first among AFC contenders to face the Broncos with all of their key playmakers, so Denver will need to do two things in order to stop the Patriots from scoring early and often.

For starters, Denver’s defensive line will need to find a way to pressure Tom Brady. That may sound like a small task for the team that led the NFL in sacks this season, but New England’s win over the Chiefs, fourth in sacks this year, proves they have a blueprint for neutralizing even the most effective pass rush. With Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Rob Gronkowski on the field it takes Brady about 1.7 seconds to release the ball. That means a defender has only 1.7 seconds to shed a block, find their way into the backfield, and bring Brady down. Josh McDaniels, New England’s offensive coordinator, sustains this efficiency by placing an option for Brady at every level of the defense. This means that James White will hover in the flat (0-5 yards in front of Brady) while Julian Edelman or Rob Gronkowski attacks the seam (directly up the middle of the field) and the other runs a route towards the sideline. Finally, Danny Amendola will follow a pattern that takes him from one side of the field across the shallow middle (5-10 yards downfield) to the other should Brady be pressured and need to get rid of the ball more quickly than he planned.

As for Denver’s secondary, tackling will be their main challenge of the afternoon. Broncos defensive backs are susceptible to allowing an above-average amount of yards after the catch because of their man coverage philosophy, matching up with receivers one-on-one more often than any other defense. The risk incurred with Denver’s press coverage is that when a receiver catches a pass and makes the defender miss, something Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola do better than almost any other pair in the league, the next closest defender is 10-15 yards away from the receiver now running free. The Patriots also have a guy named Gronk who loves to push away a defender and take off downfield where he will be ten times harder to tackle once he gets 15 yards of a running start. If Denver wants to keep points off of the board they must limit what New England’s receivers are able to do after the catch, otherwise they will find themselves overmatched and constantly defending their own end zone.

The number one objective for New England’s defense will be to stop Denver’s running game, the end all and be all of their offense this season. The combination of C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman has protected Manning by gaining significant yards on first and second down runs so that he doesn’t have to throw more than five yards in order to convert on third down. Last Sunday against Pittsburgh the Broncos offense was an abysmal 3 of 15 on third down, a stat that I’m sure was no less than music to Belicheck’s ears. New England’s defense had one of its best performances against the run on first and second down in their win over the Chiefs. If they can continue to stymie the run game this Sunday there won’t be a whole lot for them to fear from Manning on third downs.

While all of the defensive pressure will fall on the front seven come Sunday, New England’s secondary will have an important role to fill. The speed of Broncos receivers Emmanuel Sanders, Demaryius Thomas, and Andre Caldwell has become a near non-factor with Manning on the field season because of his inability to consistently throw accurately into the deep-middle and deep-third of the field. This means that the Patriots will have plenty of opportunities to produce “coverage sacks”, when a quarterback is brought down by the defense because he has no open receivers down the field. New England’s defense, which was second in sacks this season behind Denver, will have to maintain tight coverage in order to take away the quick slants and hitch routes on the sideline that Manning uses to get rid of the ball. Going back to the importance of first and second down, you can expect New England to blitz Manning should he face any third down situation five yards or longer.

Prediction

Like former Bronco Mark Schlereth said on ESPN’s First Take yesterday morning, I would be absolutely shocked if the Broncos won this game. Barring the event that an angel literally descends from heaven during the coin toss and heals Peyton Manning’s arm, Denver will be unable to keep up with New England’s scoring pace. There should also be at least one interception thrown by Manning, who was second in the league for interceptions thrown this season despite only starting nine games. This Broncos defense may be able to prevent a blowout, but Brady’s Bunch heads back to the Super Bowl, 31 – 17.

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