New England Patriots (-3.5, 44 o/u) at Denver Broncos
Predictability: we complain when our NFL has too much of it. Fans clamor for parity, for the notion of “any given Sunday.” For most of the 2015 regular season, it felt like any result was possible and that the AFC, in particular, was more wide-open than it had ever been.
Then reality set in. The New York Jets choked away a playoff spot in Week 17; the Cincinnati Bengals choked again on Wild Card Weekend; and the Houston Texans proved they never truly belonged in the postseason. The AFC became predictable again. And now the two teams left standing provide the most expected matchup imaginable: the New England Patriots (13-4, 5-3 Away) will visit the Denver Broncos (13-4, 7-2 Home) this Sunday for the right to play in Super Bowl 50 (3:05 PM Eastern).
This will mark an unprecedented tenth appearance in the AFC Championship Game for Tom Brady and a fifth straight for the Patriots. It will also mark the fourth time he’s gone up against Peyton Manning with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line. But while this game will be hyped as “Brady vs Manning XVII: the Final Chapter,” those who have watched the Broncos this year know that this chapter will be decided on the defensive side of the ball.
Denver was near the top of the AFC the entire season, but it wasn’t thanks to Manning and the offense. Just two years removed from throwing 55 touchdowns, Manning was awful this year, tossing just nine TDs against 17 interceptions. The 39-year-old also missed seven starts to close out the year, bringing into serious question whether his illustrious career would end with a whimper. But Manning not only regained the starting job in Week 17, he helped the Broncos sew up the number-one seed in the conference.
That seed was only available because of an uncharacteristic late-season collapse by the Patriots. Losers of four of their last six, the injured Patriots literally and figuratively limped their way to the finish. But they still earned a much-needed bye week in the playoffs and used it get healthy.
When they returned to action last week against Kansas City, they looked like the New England team that opened the year 10-0. With Julian Edelman back at receiver, Brady was on-point, picking apart the NFL’s third-best scoring defense without any help from his run game. He finished the game 28 of 42 for 302 yards for two passing touchdowns and one rushing; Edelman reeled in ten catches for 100 yards.
Denver, meanwhile, advanced on a less impressive effort against a Pittsburgh Steelers team without its top wideout and top two running backs. The Broncos scored their only touchdown of the game following a Fitzgerald Toussaint fumble and kicker Brandon McManus proved to be the most important weapon, booting five field goals in a 23-16 win.
While the Broncos did boast the league’s best defense in the regular season, they know they’ll need touchdowns – not field goals – to beat the Pats. When these teams met in late November, New England scored 24 points in the driving snow, despite not having Edelman or Danny Amendola at receiver. Denver took that game 30-24 in overtime with Brock Osweiler under center. Despite putting up good numbers that game, it continued an alarming trend for Brady; who fell to just 2-6 in his career at Mile High, including 0-2 in the playoffs.
Perhaps it’s the thin air, but for some reason, Brady hasn’t found any success in the Rockies, extending to long before Manning arrived. In Denver, his completion percentage is just 59-percent, and he’s lost to the likes of Brian Griese, Kyle Orton, and Jake Plummer.
However, as endless promotions this week won’t let you forget, this isn’t just any quarterback he’s going up against: it’s Peyton Manning. Brady has emerged victorious in 11 of his previous 16 games versus Manning. The rivalry is dead-even in the postseason though, after Manning won the 2006 and 2013 AFC Championships to tie Brady at 2-2.
To decide the playoff rubber match, Manning will use wits to try to orchestrate an effective run game against a Patriot defense that ranked ninth in the league against the rush. But New England’s defense still has injury concerns, especially after linebacker Jerod Mayo was placed on IR this week. Defensive end Chandler Jones and LB Jamie Collins’ status are also up in the air for this weekend.
Manning can’t uncork a deep ball like he used too, but holes in the middle of the Pats D are certainly ones he can exploit.
As for Brady, even at 38-years-old, he’s a top-three quarterback, meaning the Patriots offense will live and die by how he fares against this tough Bronco defense.
If Brady’s going to have another big day, he’ll need a repeat performance from his offensive line. Concerns swirled around that group after Brady took a licking in the final two games of the year. But with the return of Sebastian Vollmer at left tackle, the O-line held the Chiefs and their fourth-ranked pass rush without a sack.
Granted, the line was helped by a flurry of quick throws that kept the defense off guard.
It will be interesting to see if the Patriots can employ that strategy again this week against the physical corners of the Broncos, including former Patriot Aqib Talib.
No matter who Denver throws at the New England receivers, though, Bill Belichick knows he has a mismatch he can exploit with Rob Gronkowski. The beast tight end lined up out wide a number of times against Kansas City and simply out muscled their top corners. Gronk also has a history of tormenting the Broncos: he’s scored a touchdown in three straight games against Denver, amassing 22 catches for 283 yards.
Even if the Patriots jump out to a big lead (like they have in the previous two meetings), New England will have trouble putting this game on ice without a run game. Their rushing attack was so bad down the stretch that Belichick didn’t even try to establish it against the Chiefs, only handing the ball off eight times all game. When it came time to run out the clock, the Pats had to resort to throwing the ball and needed a fortuitous bounce to seal up the win.
And, as much credit as Belichick gets for being a genius, Denver’s defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is no slouch in the brains department either. He’ll have made adjustments after seeing the Pats offense back in November. In fact, of the last ten teams that have played New England in the regular season and then again in the playoffs, seven have held the Pats to fewer points in the second matchup.
So while we should see a lower scoring game this time around, making the UNDER an attractive play, the real question is: can we trust Manning to keep it close? He finally got off the “can’t win cold games” schneid with the win over Pittsburgh; now can he reverse the “can’t win big games” narrative that has dogged him all his career?
Betting-wise, the Patriots went 7-7-2 against the spread as favorites this season, and just 3-5 ATS on the road. The Broncos were 4-0 as an underdog, including 2-0 as a home dog.
In the end, I think the most predictable result is a Patriots win. But having a final four team get this many points at home makes Denver the side worth betting.
Pick: Denver +3.5 and UNDER.
(Photo Credit: Jeffrey Beall (Originally uploaded to Flickr. Photo has been cropped.)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/].)
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